REEF has just completed our final assessment report for our five-year Wellwood Restoration Site monitoring project. Before I share some results from our study, let me give you a little background information and please visit our website to view our full report http://www.reef.org/programs/monitoring/wellwood. The M/V Wellwood, a 122-meter Cypriot-registered freighter, ran aground on August 4, 1984, on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, Florida, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). The ship impacted the reef’s upper fore reef and subsequently remained aground for 12 days. The grounding destroyed 1,285 square meters of living coral reef and injured 644 square meters of coral reef framework. Prior to the grounding, the area was a transition zone with high relief coral formations. The grounding transformed the area into a flattened, barren pavement covered with coral rubble.
The study area of this project included a portion of the grounding area that is being restored and two adjacent reference sites. The Restoration site surveyed included restoration modules and contiguous low profile hardbottom areas adjacent to and in between the restoration modules. Nearby high profile reef, ledges, and undamaged/unrestored reef were not included as part of the Restoration Site. A north and south undamaged reef area were both used as two control sites to compare fish sighting data between the Restoration area and the natural (control) reefs.
REEF’s study focused on fish assemblages and not the coral and invertebrate communities. A team of Advanced Assessment Team REEF Experts conducted Roving Diver Technique (RDT) surveys in addition to belt transect surveys on the Wellwood restoration site and two adjacent natural reef sites seven times during Year 1. The team visited the sites once prior to restoration (May 2002) and 13 times after restoration was completed, monthly for the first three months, quarterly for the following year and semi-annually thereafter. An average of 12 surveys of each survey type was conducted during each survey effort. While REEF surveyors used the RDT surveys to collect sighting frequency and abundance data on fishes over all three reef areas, the belt-transect method was used to collect density and biomass data on fish taxa. These two methods used together give us a snapshot of how the restoration site is recovering in terms of fish assemblages as compared to the two non-impacted, adjacent reef areas.
Obviously, the most notable observation a diver makes when diving on the Restoration site is one of just how long it takes coral reefs to recover after devastating ship impacts. The Restoration site shows little resemblance to the surrounding non-impacted reef sites. The areas surrounding the Restoration site are high relief reef areas dominated by reef building corals with some very old colonies of Star coral (Monastrea annularis) and Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), old to the tune of thousands, not hundreds of years old. Age is important here since it takes a long time for coral colonies to rebuild structure and relief that attract different fishes over time. The smaller overall fish populations and absence of many species of fish on the damaged site are both conspicuous and the lack of coral structure makes it easy to destinguish the Restoration area from the surrounding reefs even 23 years after the initial ship grounding. However, there are signs that fishes are very slowly recruiting onto the Restoration site.
During the monitoring period (2002 - 2007), a total of 165 species were recorded at the Restoration site, 189 species at the North reference site and 207 species at the South reference site. The Restoration site recovery is clearly aided by the addition of restoration modules (2002), increasing the amount of available habitat suitable for reef fish communities, think vertical habitat here, and recessed areas underneath these modules for fish to shelter. At the Wellwood grounding site, the overall fish diversity as well as density and biomass of most key fish families continue to be less than that of the two nearby, non-impacted reefs that were selected as monitoring reference sites. Parrotfish and surgeonfish appear to be responding the quickest to the restoration efforts, grazing along a recovering hard coral landscape currently dominated by soft corals (Gorgonians). Nearly absent today on the damaged area are sightings of grunts and snappers, both of which are seen in high frequency and abundance on surrounding reef sites with plenty of relief for them to take cover. Residency of fish, movement patterns and habitat usage are all important indicators of reef recovery. So are linking coral, invertebrate, and fish studies to see a more complete picture of how the Restoration site is improving. There are signs outside of the slowly improving trends the data show such as a little Redspotted hawkfish that has taken residence on one of the modules with lots of Ken's Staghorn coral affixed.
Many more studies are necessary to properly evaluate recovery dynamics for reefs and since most reef recoveries worldwide are hampered by other anthropogenic impacts such as overfishing, excessive nutrient loading from human pollutants, and global warming stresses, these case studies are critically important in developing mitigation strategies for damaged reefs. For the full report on our Wellwood findings, please visit our website http://www.reef.org/programs/monitoring/wellwood. REEF would like to thank the many individual REEF members who dived on this project over the past 5 years, as well as Quiesscence Dive Shop in Key Largo for dive support, and Ken Nedimyer for photos and his ongoing coral replenishment work. And finally, our thanks to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary for contracting REEF for this project. We hope that this work will continue in order to monitor the long term changes in fish assemblages on the Restoration site.
The idea of an annual fish monitoring came over 25 year ago, with the first official Great American Fish Count (GAFC) in 1992. Dr. Gary Davis led the Channel Islands National Park effort as way to encourage sport divers to report fish sightings. The small number of marine scientists, the immensity of the oceans and the scarcity of funding required that volunteers be trained to assist with a nation-wide fish monitoring effort.
The use of volunteers to monitor animal species has proven to be extremely successful. The GAFC was modeled after the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which continues to play a significant role in documenting and raising awareness of the declining populations of migratory birds, and has helped reduce destruction of their habitat.
The first GAFC event was held at Anacapa Island, California with fifty participants. The event was focused during the first two weeks of July to attempt to capture as many divers as possible and attract media attention. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary joined in 1994. By 1995, the GAFC had become a coordinated effort between the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The ultimate goal of the GAFC was to have divers become interested enough in fish monitoring to map and adopt sites that could then be visited year-round.
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary Program expressed interest in the GAFC and Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) working together to support and promote volunteer fish monitoring throughout the entire Sanctuary program. By the end of 1997, the GAFC evolved into a national event held during July of each year coordinated by American Oceans Campaign, REEF, and NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program. By 1999, REEF became the sole organizer of the GAFC with continued partnership with and NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program.
In 2001, a full-time dedicated staff was hired to managed the logistics and planning of the GAFC thanks to the Curtis & Edith Munson Foundation, the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and PADI Project Aware. The 2001 event was a huge success. The number of seminars quadrupled and many dives were conducted throughout the nation, Canada, and in the Caribbean. Many GAFC dives were conducted within National Marine Sanctuaries, such as Florida Keys, Gray's Reef, Stellwagen Bank, Flower Garden Banks, Monterey, Channel Islands, and Hawaii. Approximately 900 people participated and over 1,900 surveys were conducted during the July event that year.
Due to the increased participation and overwhelming response and commitment from REEF's Survey Project regions throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of California, and British Columbia, in 2002, the Great American Fish Count officially changed its name to the Great Annual Fish Count.
Today, REEF is the sole coordinator for the event which continues to grow and brings in approximately 2,000 marine life surveys in the month of July alone. These efforts reach hundreds of volunteers throughout REEF's survey regions in dozens of countries. 17th GAFC this year in 2008 is sure to be a great one - get involved!
While every one of REEF’s 10,000+ volunteers who have conducted a survey as part of the Volunteer Survey Project are Making Dives That Count, there is a small cadre of surveyors who have taken their passion for fish and critter watching to the next level. They are the volunteers, those most active in each of REEF’s project regions, who have actively strived to move through the REEF Experience Level system, often becoming REEF Experts and members of the Advanced Assessment Team (AAT). And among this group, there are a handful of surveyors who have reached a significant benchmark – the 1,000 survey mark! Passing this benchmark gets you a place in the REEF Golden Hamlet Club. And this Summer, REEF welcomes two new GHC members - Bruce Purdy and Dave Grenda. They join Peter Leahy, Linda Baker, Lad Akins, Judie Clee, Linda Ridley, and Linda Schillinger.
Bruce Purdy is the owner/operator of the Bahamas diving liveaboards Aquacat, Cat Ppalu and Blackbeard's Cruises. He's been a REEF member since 1994 and a member of REEF's Tropical Western Atlantic AAT since 2002. Bruce is a staunch conservationist and has been integral in supporting REEF's lionfish work in the Bahamas. In addition to his work with REEF assessments and lionfish projects, he has also pioneered sea urchin restoration efforts in the Bahamas. Even though he has reached the milestone of 1,000 surveys, Bruce continues to encourage his diver to join him in surveying Bahamian reefs and supporting REEF's conservation projects - Way to go Bruce!!!
Dave Grenda has been a REEF member since 1998, and is one of the very few of our volunteers who have conducted REEF surveys in all four regions -- Tropical Western Atlantic, Tropical Eastern Pacific, West Cost of the US, and Hawaii! He joined the Tropical Western Atlantic AAT in 2001 and has participated in multiple AAT special projects. Dave is also a NOAA Science Diver and has participated in multiple NOAA research cruises in National Marine Sanctuaries. Most recently, Dave started helping with the REEF Grouper Moon Project and just returned from a few weeks on Grand Cayman helping to tag Nassau grouper. His passion for fishwatching shines through on projects and he is always eager to share the joy of a new find. In his "other" life, Dave is a retired Air Force Colonel. Way to go Dave!!!
After many years of planning, financial woes and last minute negotiations, it appears that the Hoyt S Vandenberg, a 520-foot troop transport/missile tracking military vessel, will be sunk as the newest artificial reef in the Florida Keys. Recent communication with the State of Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission has given the go ahead for REEF to initiate pre-deployment monitoring of the sinking site and 7 other adjacent reef areas to study the recruitment and movement of fish around the wreck and reef sites.
The one year study will also include surveys of non-native orange cup coral, titan acorn barnacle and Indo-Pacific lionfish. While exact dates have not been set for the sinking, plans are for the ship, located now in Virginia to be towed to Key West in early April and then scuttled 6 miles offshore in May. REEF Advanced Assessment Teams will survey the sites prior to deployment, then again one month following the sinking and quarterly through the remainder of year one. It is anticipated that the wreck will provide significant habitat for fish as well as additional recreational opportunities for fishing and diving activities. Data gathered during REEF’s efforts will aid in determining how effective the ship is in meeting its biological objectives.
For more information on the Vandenberg fish survey project, contact Lad Akins, Lad@reef.org (305) 852-0030.
One of the best parts about fishwatching is that no matter how many surveys you have under your belt, there's always a chance to see something unexpected. Recently I was diving on Davey Crocker Reef near Tavernier in the Florida Keys with four REEF surveyors. As often happens, we got separated, me with my photography and the others surveying. I spotted a brown fish about 8 inches long “drifting” in the water just under a ledge overhang. It sort of looked like a croaker to me, but not one that I recognized. I photographed it from a distance and continued to photograph while moving closer. The fish remained still, just looking at me. Finally, when I got about 6 feet away it retreated into the gloom under the ledge.
Back on the boat we were talking fish -- as usual. One of the others commented about a strange brown fish she had seen under a ledge. It turns out everyone had seen it and no one knew what it was. The entire group were members of REEF's Advanced Assessment Team (AAT, Expert Surveyors), so no one knowing is surprising. After downloading my photos, I researched the mystery fish. My hunch was correct; it was a Croaker, a rarely seen Blue Croaker, Bairdiella batabana. These were the first sightings of this species to go into the REEF database!
So how do you know if it's a Blue Croaker? The body coloration can be copperish to bluish brown. The only distinctive marking is a white crease on the gill cover.
We are pleased to welcome Marty Snyderman to our Board of Trustees. Marty is an EMMY Award winning cinematographer, still photographer, author and speaker. He currently serves as the Marine Life Editor for Dive Training Magazine and is the long time author of the magazine’s monthly “What’s That”, “Always Learning”, and “Behind the Lens” columns. He is the 2008 recipient of DEMA’s (Dive Equipment Marketing Association) Reaching Out Award and joined the ranks of DEMA’s Hall of Fame. Many REEF members also know him for his co-produced shark identification DVD, Sharks and Their Kin.
Board of Trustees member Andy Dehart of the National Aquarium recounts: “I met Marty when he joined our production company on an extended Alaskan expedition to document the elusive salmon shark. Despite record rainfall, backcountry camping, bears, a scarcity of sharks, and an unrelenting stench from decaying salmon, Marty’s passion for the adventure remained boundless. The more I learned about his knowledge of marine wildlife, and commitment to the marine environment, it became obvious that Marty would be a valuable addition to the REEF Board.”
As a resident of Solana Beach, California, Marty joins Board member Heather George and Pacific Northwest staff as REEF continues to expand its mission on the west coast. Marty, Welcome Aboard!
REEF Fish Survey Project data were recently featured in a paper in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, Large-Scale Absence of Sharks on Reefs in the Greater-Caribbean: A Footprint of Human Pressures. The study's authors evaluated the status of 14 species of sharks in the Caribbean. In recent decades, large pelagic and coastal shark populations have declined dramatically with increased fishing. However, the status of sharks in other systems such as coral reefs remains largely unassessed despite a long history of exploitation. The paper's authors used REEF data to explore the contemporary distribution and sighting frequency of sharks on reefs in the greater-Caribbean, and assessed the possible role of human pressures on observed patterns.
The analysis was based on 76,340 underwater surveys carried out by REEF volunteers between 1993 and 2008. REEF data are well suited for rarely seen species like sharks because of the wide geographic coverage by REEF volunteers.The authors compared sighting frequency to the number of people in each area surveyed, and used population viability analyses to assess the effects of exploitation on population trends. Sharks, with the exception of nurse sharks, occurred mainly in areas with very low human population or strong fishing regulations and marine conservation. Population viability analysis suggests that exploitation alone could explain the large-scale absence; however, this pattern is likely to be exacerbated by additional anthropogenic stressors, such as pollution and habitat degradation, that also correlate with human population. Preventing further loss of sharks requires urgent management measures to curb fishing mortality and to mitigate other anthropogenic stressors to protect sites where sharks still exist. The fact that sharks still occur in some densely populated areas where strong fishing regulations are in place indicates the possibility of success and encourages the implementation of conservation measures.
A PDF of the full paper can be downloaded here. The citation is Ward-Paige CA, Mora C, Lotze HK, Pattengill-Semmens C, McClenachan L, et al. (2010) Large-Scale Absence of Sharks on Reefs in the Greater-Caribbean: A Footprint of Human Pressures. PLoS ONE 5(8): e11968. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011968. To see a complete list of papers and other publications featuring REEF data, visit the REEF Publications page.
Researchers and volunteers from REEF, along with staff from the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, have just wrapped up another year of study on Nassau grouper spawning as part of the Grouper Moon Project. Our work this year focused on the spawning aggregation in Little Cayman, which is the largest (and one of just a few) known remaining aggregations of Nassau grouper in the Caribbean. Highlights from this year’s work include:
- REEF launched the Baby Grouper Adrift! webpage, which shows the results of state-of-the-art satellite drifter research being conducted. Working with scientists from Oregon State University, the Adrift project aims to better understand where Nassau grouper larvae end up after being spawned. Webpage visitors can follow the current drifters in real time as they complete a 45-day ocean journey (the amount of time Nassau grouper larvae spend floating in the currents), and even take a guess where the drifters will end up. Visit the webpage at http://www.REEF.org/programs/grouper_moon/adrift
- In addition to copious amounts of Nassau grouper spawning documented in both January and February, several hundred tiger grouper were seen spawning over multiple evenings in February. Watch this video to see the tigers spawning! http://www.REEF.org/reef_files/REEF2011TigerGrouperSpawning.mov
Here's video of the Nassau grouper -- http://www.reef.org/reef_files/REEF2011NassauGrouperSpawning.mov
- World-famous marine life artist and conservationist, Guy Harvey, accompanied the Grouper Moon team this year to film a documentary on the project.
- The current Our World Underwater scholar, Josh Stewart, joined the project to help document our research. Josh will be working with REEF over the next several months to develop outreach materials that educate the public on the importance of spawning aggregations. To read more about Josh’s year as an OWU scholar, check out his blog – http://owussnorthamerica.org/
- Wayne Sullivan once again donated his time and his vessel, the Glen Ellen, along with her crew, to support tech diving operations. This year, they helped answer many unknowns at the Little Cayman site, including how deep the Nassau grouper are found during the day and during spawning (at least 150 feet), and whether the fish spawn after dark (yes!).
2011 is a critical year for the Nassau grouper of the Cayman Islands. An 8-year ban on fishing at spawning aggregations is due to expire this year. Sometime in early spring, members of the Cayman Islands Marine Conservation Board and the CI Government will be deciding what, if any, protections will be enacted to replace the expiring ban. Based on research findings generated over the last 9 years, we know that Nassau grouper only reproduce during their spawning season (winter months around the full moons). The research has also shown that prohibiting fishing during the spawning season has resulted in higher numbers of this endangered species in Cayman waters, benefiting everyone, including future generations of Caymanians, divers and snorkelers, and fishermen. A healthy population of Nassau Grouper is also critical for healthy and productive coral reefs. The government is seeking input on extending protections. To provide feedback, send a letter to: Gina Ebanks-Petrie, Director, Department of the Environment, Cayman Islands Government, PO Box 486, Grand Cayman KY1-1106, Cayman Islands, Gina.Ebanks-Petrie@gov.ky
Many Thanks! The Grouper Moon Project wouldn’t be possible without the dedication, passion, and financial support from many individuals, Cayman Island businesses, and foundations. It truly takes a village to pull off this conservation research project. Visit our supporters page to see the full list.
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 Sally Davies (REEF member since 2004) and her sister Helen Davies (REEF member since 2006). Collectively they have conducted 100 surveys, and both participated in the recent inaugural South Pacific REEF Trip (more on that next month!). Here's what Helen had to say about REEF:
When and how did you first volunteer with REEF or become a REEF member? How did you first hear about REEF?
Sally was first introduced to REEF by a colleague of hers, Neil Ericsson. The combination of science and nature combined with a desire to contribute something of value made REEF an excellent fit. Sally took her first REEF trip to Bonaire in 2004. It was a true whirlwind trip since hurricane Ivan blasted through, taking with it the dive dock at Buddy Dive. After her first trip with REEF, Sally was “hooked” and she started lobbying me (Helen) to learn SCUBA diving. Her persistence paid off and in 2006 I took my first REEF trip to Belize.
If you have been on a REEF Field Survey, where and what was your trip highlight?
I think the most memorable moment for me was on a trip to St. Vincent diving with Bill Tewes. We were in about 20 ft of water and off in the distance I could see something dark near the sand. It was a group of about 7 flying gurnards digging through the sand with their pectoral fins, it was like something out of a science fiction movie, I’ll never forget it.
What inspires you to complete REEF surveys? What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned doing a REEF fish survey?
When I started surveying I was a new scuba diver still learning how to dive so learning both diving and underwater surveying took some time. However, once I learned how to ID the fish and see my data on-line, I began to get excited about adding to a much larger mission. REEF survey data are used by scientists and others all over the world to help better understand our planet. Pretty cool! It's great being part of an organization of conservation minded folks who are keenly interested in our oceans. My favorite fish is the secretary blenny in those blenny condos! The cirri get me every time!!
Do you have a favorite local (or not) REEF field station or dive shop?
My local San Francisco dive shop is Bamboo Reef. They’ve been in business for 50 years and Sal Zimitti who started the business is still diving in California waters. They are incredibly professional and knowledgeable and fun!
Do you have any surveying, fishwatching, or identification tips for REEF members?
Take a point and shoot camera, it will really help you learn the fish. Also, keep working at it, the surveying gets much easier with practice.
REEF scientists and volunteers just wrapped up another season of the Grouper Moon Project, a collaborative research effort with the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment (CIDOE). Our research focuses on Little Cayman, which has one of the largest (and one of just a few) known spawning aggregations of Nassau grouper in the Caribbean. Over 4,000 grouper amass in one location for 7-10 days following winter full moons. Since 2002, REEF and our partners at CIDOE and Oregon State University have used state-of-the-art technology, as well as good old fashioned diver surveys, to study this amazing natural phenomenon and the research has yielded ground-breaking results. It was a very exiting year - we documented significantly higher numbers of fish at the site than in previous years (we are estimating that the aggregation has surpassed 4,000 fish), there were a lot of small fish this year (6-8 year olds, coming to spawn for the first time), and there are hundreds of juvenile (young-of-the-year) Nassaus throughout the shallow habitats around Little Cayman (a result of 2011 spawning). Also this year, with support from the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, we initiated an education program to introduce local children to the ecological, economic, and cultural role that Nassau grouper have in the Cayman Islands and wider Caribbean. An integrated marine science curriculum is being developed with a focus on two age groups (Grade 4 and Grade 11), that includes a series of classroom lessons and live from the field web sessions, including a live-feed from 80 feet on the aggregation. We are working with educator, Todd Bohannon, and piloting this program with Cayman Prep school on Grand Cayman.
Other highlights from Grouper Moon 2012:
- To raise awareness about the importance of spawning aggregations and the iconic Nassau grouper, we hosted documentary crews and underwater photographers to help capture the magical scenes of spawning and document our research. Dr. Guy Harvey, famed marine artist, is putting the finishing touches on "Mystery of the Grouper Moon", an hour-long show that will air later this year. A crew from the PBS series "Changing Seas" is producing an episode about the conservation impacts of our research. Paul Humann, REEF co-founder and marine life photographer, was on hand to document REEF's work in this important project. And Jim Hellemn brought his custom camera rig to generate wide-angle panorama images of the aggregation. These will be used to "immerse" the viewer into the aggregation at public displays.
- On spawning nights, samples of fertilized eggs were collected to use in future genetic work, to better understand spawning patterns and inter-conectedness between Nassau grouper populations throughout the Caribbean.
- Cynthia Shaw, author of the book "Grouper Moon", joined the REEF team both in the field and in the classroom this year. As a scientific illustrator, Cindy lent her expertise to helping document the details of juvenile Nassau gropuer habitat and led our Cayman Prep classrooms in drawning Nassau grouper. Cindy's book is now available in the REEF online store here.
- Research findings from the project, describing the timing and behavior of color phases on spawning in Nassau grouper, was published in a recent issue of the scientific journal Current Zoology. You can read this paper online here.
- A short compilation of underwater footage from the spawning aggregation is posted on YouTube here.
This year's effort came on the heals of the 11th hour extension of protections for the spawning aggregations in the Cayman Islands. An 8-year ban that prohibits fishing at the aggregation sites during the reproductive season, originally implemented in 2003, was extended for eight more years in December 2011. The extension, enacted by the Marine Conservation Board, was in response to recommendations made by the CIDOE based on research findings of the Grouper Moon Project, showing that full protections during spawning season are critical to the long-term survival of this iconic species in the Cayman Islands. The Cayman Ministry may soon review a package of more thorough legislation that would enact seasonal closures for Nassau grouper during reproductive time (rather than only protecting the few spots on the map of known spawning sites).
Many Thanks! The Grouper Moon Project wouldn’t be possible without the dedication, passion, and financial support from many individuals, Cayman Island businesses, and foundations. It truly takes a village to pull off this conservation research project. Visit the Grouper Moon page to see the full list - http://www.REEF.org//groupermoonproject. If you would like to support this important marine conservation program, please donate to REEF - https://www.reef.org/contribute.