REEF Data Used To Evaluate the Status of Big Fish and Fisheries in the Caribbean

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Nassau grouper is one of 20 predatory fish species that were evaluated in a recently published study in the scientific journal PLoS One. Photo by Selina Heppell.
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Data collected by REEF volunteer surveyors from 86 sites in 22 Caribbean nations were used in the analysis. Stallings 2009.

Data collected as part of the REEF Volunteer Survey Project were the basis of a recent publication evaluating the effect of human population size on coral reef fish populations. The sweeping study, conducted by researcher Dr. Chris Stallings of Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, revealed that sharks, barracuda and other large predatory fishes disappear on Caribbean coral reefs as human populations rise, endangering the region’s marine food web and ultimately its reefs and fisheries. The study, which used data collected by REEF volunteers at sites in 22 Caribbean nations over 15 years, demonstrates the power of volunteer and community research efforts by non-scientists. Data are often insufficient at region-wide scales to assess the effects of extraction in coral reef ecosystems of developing nations. The REEF citizen science project fills this gap by generating valid and needed data over large geographic areas over long time periods.

While other scientists working in the Caribbean have observed the declines of large predators for decades, the comprehensive work by Dr. Stallings documents the ominous patterns in far more detail at a much greater geographic scale than any other research to date. The study found that nations with more people have reefs with far fewer large fish because as the number of people increases, so does demand for seafood. Stallings said that although several factors -- including loss of coral reef habitats -- contributed to the general patterns, careful examination of the data suggests overfishing as the most likely reason for the disappearance of large predatory fishes across the region. He pointed to the Nassau grouper as a prime example. Once abundant throughout the Caribbean, Nassau grouper have virtually disappeared from many Caribbean nearshore areas and are endangered throughout their range.

Dr. Stalling's article on the study, “Fishery-Independent Data Reveal Negative Effect of Human Population Density on Caribbean Predatory Fish Communities,” was published in the May 6, 2009 issue of the journal PLoS One. The paper is available for download here.

To find out more about how REEF Volunteer Survey Project data have been used by scientists and government agencies, visit the Publications page on the REEF Website.

Reports From the Field - 2009 Bermuda Field Survey

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Thirteen lucky REEF members joined Anna and Ned Deloach, Judie Clee, and Chris Flook for a Field Survey to remember in Bermuda.
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The beautiful Puddingwife, one of the largest wrasse species in the western Atlantic. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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Yellowhead Wrasse in Bermuda show unique coloration patterns. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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A teeny tiny, baby Bermuda Chub found under floating Sargassum. Photo by Ned DeLoach.

Over eight years ago, REEF expanded its flagship Fish Survey Project into Bermuda. Since then, local surveyors have contributed over 2500 surveys to the sighting database! In October, thirteen volunteers joined local REEF hosts Judie Clee and Chris Flook for a delightfully full schedule. After two extended survey dives each day, we were treated to a night snorkel and picnic to watch glowworms, a slideshow and dinner at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, a private, guided tour of the nature preserve on Nonsuch Island, and a reception and presentations by the scientists from BREAM (Bermuda Reef Ecosystem Assessment and Mapping Programme). The week was topped off with a grand finale dinner and behind the scenes tour of the Bermuda Aquarium and Zoological Park.

One of the best things about fishwatching is seeing something new. Many areas have endemic fish and experienced fishwatchers know that fish coloration and behaviors can vary a lot from region to region. We arrived prepared to add Bermuda Bream, Bermuda Halfbeaks and Gwelly jacks to our lifelists but found ourselves equally thrilled to see the Bermuda version of the Yellowhead wrasse, called the Redback (for its distinctive red coloration) and the brilliant jewel colors of their Puddingwives. Between dives, Chris Flook, from the Bermuda Aquarium, filled buckets with rafts of Sargassum seaweed and pointed out juvenile chubs, crabs, shrimps, pipefish and frogfish. Judie’s expert eye helped us sort out the damselfish puzzle. We dived several times in an area where the Emerald Parrotfish was once quite common but has not been seen for many years. Our possible sightings have generated some excitement and Judie and Chris are investigating further. Our total species count for the week was 115 and included a rare sighting of a Conchfish.

Thanks go out to Triangle Diving for the welcome BBQ (and Lionfish hors d’oeuvres) and their excellent diving services. And very special thanks to the Bermuda Zoological Society for funding REEF in Bermuda and for underwriting many of our special activities of the week. We’ll be back – and promise that it won’t take eight years!

As this report reminds us -- REEF trips are more than just your average dive vacation. Be sure to check out the REEF trip 2010 schedule, which can be found online at www.REEF.org/fieldsurveys/schedule. We encourage you to join us on our adventures in 2010 and Take a Trip the Counts!

REEF Volunteers Conduct Annual Expedition to Monterey Bay

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The REEF team aboard the Monterey Express.
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Long-time Pacific REEF surveyor and AAT member, John Wolfe, reviews sightings with Keith Rootsaert.
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Stunning underwater habitat at the outer pinnacles near Carmel Bay in the MBNMS. The bottom is covered with invertebrates, like the colorful Purple Hydrocoral. Great fish life too, like the gopher rockfish resting on the rock. Photo by Chad King/MBNMS.

Members of REEF's Pacific Advanced Assessment Team (AAT) and other active surveyors gathered in central California earlier this month to survey fish and invertebrate life in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS). Twenty-two divers conducted over 140 REEF surveys at twelve sites during the week-long project. This was the 8th year that the coordinated expedition has been conducted, and the data collected serve as a valuable time-series of information on the status and trends of populations within the Sanctuary. The team was led by REEF Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens. Dr. Steve Lonhart, a lead scientist from the MBNMS, and Chad King from the MBNMS, also joined the group for the week to provide valuable local expertise.

In addition to this annual monitoring project, volunteers conduct REEF surveys year-round during their regular diving activities in the area. REEF surveys have been conducted in the Sanctuary since 1997, and to date, over 2,600 surveys have been submitted from the MBNMS in to the REEF database. Click here to see a current summary of REEF data from the MBNMS. The Sanctuary is home to many colorful fish and invertebrates and is a popular spot for sport diving. REEF data collected in the MBNMS are currently being analyzed to document changes in key rocky reef fish species. Projects like the annual MBNMS monitoring are a great way for active REEF volunteers to apply their skills and expertise. These projects are also just one more reason for REEF surveyors to improve their identification skills and increase their survey experience level.

A big thank you to the participating AAT members and other REEF volunteers, and to Dr. Steve Lonhart and Chad King for their participation and logistical support. We also greatly appreciate George Peterson and Justin Kantor from the Monterey Bay Aquarium for hosting our first evening seminar. Field support was provided by the Monterey Express; thanks to owner Tim Doreck and to Captain Phil Sammet for serving at the helm of our adventures. This project would not be possible without the financial support of an anonymous foundation.

Outstanding in their Field: Featured REEF Field Station, Marker Buoy Dive Club

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REEF is proud to partner with over 130 dive shops, dive clubs, individuals, and other organizations as REEF Field Stations.

This month we feature Marker Buoy Dive Club in Washington, which has been a Field Station for about a year. The Marker Buoy Dive Club was founded in 1961 and some of its club members have been diving in Puget Sound since the 1960s and 1970s, so they are very aware of long-term changes in some local fish populations. The Marker Buoy Dive Club currently has about 145 members. They have a dedicated group of members who encourage club participation in the REEF program and in other local activities that raise public awareness of the marine life in Puget Sound. The club is very fortunate to have an active REEF Level 5 surveyor (Rhoda Green) who is willing to teach REEF Introduction to Fish and Invertebrate Identification classes.

In addition to offering ID classes, the club hosts survey dives on a regular basis (sometimes as often as once/week) and encourage club members to report their sightings from their own dives. They have added a REEF News section to our monthly newsletter and are featuring a “Critter of the Month” from the PNW Critter Watchers archive. The club will be recognizing the volunteer efforts of members who have been most active in the REEF program and all club members who turn in at least 10 surveys this year will be entered in a drawing for some fun prizes. Some future plans include encouraging members to become advanced level REEF surveyors and to broaden the range of ID classes including Hawaiian fish identification class for club members who are planning to go on a dive trip to Maui. Club members recently remarked "REEF wouldn’t be the program that it is without the efforts and dedication of our regional Outreach Coordinator, Janna Nichols, and all of the people who volunteer their time to teach the classes, host survey dives, log their surveys and report their sightings – keep up the good work!"

Thanks Marker Buoy Dive Club – you’re a shining beacon to us all!

Putting It to Work: Who’s Using REEF Data, May 2011

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Every month, scientists, government agencies, and other groups request raw data from REEF’s Fish Survey Project database. Here is a sampling of who has asked for REEF data recently and what they are using it for:

-Researchers used data on yelloweye rockfish frequency of occurrence in the San Juan Islands in Washington to evaluate population status for the San Juan County Community Development and Planning Department.

- The Tunicate Response Action Committee (TRAC) in Washington State evaluated data on three invasive tunicates that are included REEF's Pacific Northwest program.

- A scientist from Florida Fish and Wildlife requested data on yellowtail snapper populations in the Southeastern US to conduct analyses for a stock assessment.

Don't Forget to Book Your REEF Trip Now!

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Now is the time to book your 2012 REEF Field Survey trip. We have an exciting lineup planned. Trips are starting to fill up (some are already sold out), so don't delay. Get in touch with our travel experts at Caradonna to find out more and to book your space - 1-877-295-7333 (REEF), or via e-mail REEF@caradonna.com. Destinations include the Sea of Cortez/Baja Mexico, Dominica, Bermuda, the BVI, Nevis, Hornby Island, and many more. The full schedule and more information can be found online at http://www.REEF.org/trips.

Outstanding in their Field: Featured REEF Field Station, Dive Club of Silicon Valley

REEF is proud to partner with over 130 dive shops, dive clubs, individuals, and other organizations as REEF Field Stations. This month we feature the Dive Club of Silicon Valley. The dive club started organizing Great Annual Fish Count Events (GAFC) over 10 years ago. Club member and leader of their REEF programs, Kari Larson, says "The club has always been interested in ways to help the environment and help divers understand their role as underwater ambassadors. As a club we promote fun and safe diving. The GAFC was a perfect fit." After learning about the GAFC, she and fellow club member and husband, Mike Davis, thought it was "a good fit for the club and sounded fun. It gave us a chance to contribute to ocean conservation." Ten years later, they are still at it. The club has scheduled 3 upcoming ID classes and a survey dive at Lover Point Park in Pacific Grove, CA (details below). Kari and Mike feel that as a grass roots effort, REEF helps promote involvement at even a beginner diver level and that is important. Kari also noted that, "The access to the database is important, it allows our divers to see how their efforts make a difference. The online resources help members not only in our home area but as they travel to different locations they can identify the fish there also". Club members have started participating in REEF's online Fishinars and the club offers Level 2 & 3 REEF experience testing.

Dive Club of Silicon Valley - 2012 Great Annual Fish Count Events

June 20, 7-9pm Invertebrate - Dr. Steve Lonhart NOAA

June 26, 7-9pm Basic FishID - Mike Davis PADI IDCS Instructor

July 2, 7-9pm Basic FishID - Mike Davis PADI IDCS Instructor

July 7, 8am GAFC and BBQ at Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove, CA

The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, John Wolfe

Male Kelp Greenling. Photo by Janna Nichols.
John with dive buddies, Dan Grolemund, Kate Chaitin, Deenie Clinton.
John is not only an ID nerd underwater, he enjoys birdwatching too.
John recently submitted a paper for publication that analyzes REEF data from Monterey Peninsula. John evaluated trends in species such as this Young-of-the-Year Canary Rockfish.
One of John's favorite finds, a Masked Prickleback. Photo by John Wolfe.
Rookie Revenge! An Acapulco Damselfish (correctly ID'ed). Photo by John Wolfe.

REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. Over 43,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.

This month we highlight John Wolfe. John joined REEF in 1998 and has conducted 530 surveys. John is a member of the REEF Advanced Assessment Team in both the Pacific Coast and Hawaii. In addition to his active survying, he has delved into teaching about REEF and ID and has mentored several surveyors to become experts. He has also taken a keen interest in getting REEF data used by the scientific and management communities, serving on Marine Life Protection Act committees and has written several papers using REEF data. Here's what John had to say about REEF:

When and how did you first volunteer with REEF or become a REEF member?

I took my first REEF fish ID class in 1997. It was a Great American Fish Count kick-off event organized by Karen Grimmer of NOAA and taught by Dan Gotshall (author of Pacific Coast Inshore Fishes). My friend Rachid Feretti was the area’s most enthusiastic REEF surveyor at that time. Quite the raconteur, Rachid would pigeonhole anyone (including curious tourists) to describe the REEF diver survey program. In the late 1990’s I only did a handful of surveys every year, thinking of them as special dives with special equipment; I was also a volunteer diver for the sheriff’s department, diving black water and not getting to the ocean as much. In the new millennium I realized that it was more fun to conduct a REEF survey on EVERY ocean dive I did. That was the big break-through. When I realized I could simply put my slate on a retractable harness and tuck it under my BC belly strap, it became a standard piece of my diver gear, taken on every dive.

If you have been on a REEF Field Survey, where and what was your trip highlight?

Since 2003 I’ve participated in every annual REEF Advanced Assessment Team monitoring project in Monterey, my local dive area. It’s always a fabulous assemblage of skilled cold-water divers and enthusiastic fish nerds, with Captain Phil Sammet entertaining us with salty stories and Christy and Brice Semmens calmly and expertly leading the trips. I’ve been on the Sea of Cortez and Big Island of Hawai’i REEF trips once each, and totally enjoyed both experiences, learning a whole new ecosystem of species.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

REEF totally supports my chosen hobby. My father was a fanatic fly fisherman and my mother is a fanatic bird watcher. It’s only natural that I became a fanatic fish watcher. My REEF experience has also taken me beyond just carrying a slate. Between 2005 and 2007, I served as a diver stakeholder and REEF volunteer representative for the California Central Coast Region Marine Life Protection Act initiative. After three years of intense wrangling between conservation and fishing interests, that effort resulted in a network of Marine Protected Areas along the central coast. In the Monterey Peninsula area we fought so hard that the chairman of the Fish and Game Commission, witnessing the debate, called it the Balkans. Nevertheless, I think the contentiousness of that process led to a resulting network of MPAs that all sides now grudgingly admit is a good compromise.

I have also enjoyed teaching others about REEF and ID. Over the past decade I’ve also given several REEF fish ID classes and presentations about the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative to local divers. I’m always looking for that next special diver who will become an enthusiastic and dedicated REEF surveyor. I have found some special people, like Keith Rootsaert and Alex Matsumoto, who now teach REEF fish ID classes and carry on the tradition.

In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of REEF’s projects and programs?

It’s only now, with fifteen years of data in Monterey, and even more in the western Atlantic, that we’re starting to see the value of the REEF surveys as long term data. REEF scientific advisor, Dr. Brice Semmens, points out that such long-term data are quite rare and precious in ecological research. Furthermore, I think we’ve recently made a big breakthrough on how to statistically analyze the data; it’s a gold mine that we’ve only really started to dig into. I’m really excited about a paper I’m co-authoring with REEF Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, about this topic.

Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there? Where is your favorite place to dive?

The Monterey Peninsula is a special place, with rocky reefs, protected coves, and amazing kelp forests. It’s a two-hour drive from my home in Berkeley, well worth the effort. My favorite dive spots along the Monterey Peninsula include North and South Monastery, now protected in the recently expanded Pt. Lobos marine reserve, as well as Point Lobos State Park itself, the longest running no-take marine reserve in the state. Butterfly House and Point Pinos are wild, spectacular shore dives. I also enjoy the mellower Coral Street and Otter Cove dive sites – and I’ve never had a dull dive at the most heavily dived site of our area, the Breakwater. My favorite local boat dive site is Dali’s Wall outside of Stillwater Cove – it’s always a highlight of our annual Monterey field survey.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

Do I have to choose? Kelp Greenling, both male and female, are such handsome fish. Juvenile Canary Rockfish are tiny spectacular gold, black and white jewels. Enormous schools of tubesnout threading and weaving their way through a kelp forest is a spectacular sight!

What is your most memorable fish find and why?

Well, I have a few. I’ve only seen one Rockhead Poacher, years ago – it’s a bizarre tiny fish with a punctured pate (pit in the top of its head) that looks just like the orange cup coral it so successfully hides amidst. It's so bizarre, an exciting find! The second would be finding (and eventually photographing) the Masked Prickleback. It is a handsome fish with a tan back, white belly, and broad dark chocolate brown stripe running the length of the fish from eye to tail. This species was only discovered by science in the mid-1960’s, by a night diver at the Monterey Breakwater. That diver, David Powell, later became the Director of Live Exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He recounts his discovery of that species in his book “A Fascination for Fish”. Masked Pricklebacks are shy and nocturnal, relatively uncommon and very difficult to photograph. And finally -- an instance of fish ID rookie vindication! On my first Sea of Cortez REEF field survey, I’d made a couple of embarrassing and very public rookie ID goofs early in the week. So later in the week, after coming up from Swanee Reef and telling Brice I’d seen an Acapulco Damselfish, he was certain I’d seen the much more common Cortez Damselfish … until I showed him the photographic evidence. It was the first (and perhaps the only) Acapulco Damselfish the group saw that week.

Great Annual Fish Count 2013

The 22nd annual Great Annual Fish Count (GAFC) is rapidly approaching! Will you be participating? We encourage local shops, dive clubs, and other groups to organize an activity anytime during the month of July (and often training events in June). You can view events already scheduled, and add your own, by visiting www.fishcount.org.

The concept behind the GAFC is to not only accumulate large numbers of surveys during the month of July, but to introduce divers and snorkelers to Fishwatching and conducting REEF surveys. Interested groups can offer free fish ID classes, organize dive/snorkel days, and turn them into fun gatherings! To find out more, contact us at gafc@reef.org.

Putting It To Work: New Publication on Efforts to Control Invsive Lionfish

Ground-breaking invasive lionfish findings were featured in a paper published earlier this month in the scientific journal, Ecological Applications. The research was conducted as a collaboration between REEF, Oregon State University, Simon Fraser University, and the Cape Eleuthera Institute. The new study, conducted by Dr. Stephanie Green (OSU/REEF), Lad Akins (REEF), and others, confirms for the first time that controlling lionfish populations in the western Atlantic Ocean can pave the way for a recovery of native fish. Even if it's one speared fish at a time, data are showing that removals can be effective. And not every lionfish need be removed…the research findings document that reducing lionfish numbers by specified amounts will allow a rapid recovery of native fish biomass. Over 18 months, the biomass of native prey fishes increased an average 50-70% on reefs where lionfish numbers were suppressed below target levels predicted to cause prey depletion. On reefs where lionfish numbers remained higher than target levels, the biomass of prey fishes decreased by a further 50%. While complete eradication of lionfish from the Caribbean is not likely, groups are actively removing them from coastal areas (mostly via spear and net). This study is a first step in showing that strategic local efforts that suppress the invasion to low levels can help protect and recover native fish communities affected by lionfish. Click here to view the paper, “Linking removal targets to the ecological effects of invaders: a predictive model and field test.” To view a complete list of publications that have come from REEF programs, visit our Publications page.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub