Putting It To Work: New Study Documents Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease

A healthy Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), an important predator in the kelp forests of the US and Canadian west coast. Photo by Janna Nichols.
A Sunflower Sea Star that has succumbed to wasting disease. Photo by Janna Nichols.
Green Sea Urchin populations have increased in areas where Sunflower Sea Stars have declined. Photo by Janna Nichols.

Sea star wasting disease has devastated sea star populations on the West coast from Mexico to Alaska. The disease broke out in 2013, causing massive death of several species of sea stars. Infected animals develop lesions that eat away tissue, with limbs dropping off as the animals die. The disease has been linked to a virus, although environmental factors may also be involved.

A new study, published last week in the scientific journal, PLoS ONE, presents an analysis of REEF survey data on several asteroid species collected by divers in the Salish Sea over the last 10 years. The Salish Sea is a Canadian / United States transboundary marine ecosystem, and world-wide hotspot for temperate asteroid species diversity with a high degree of endemism.

The results showed that some species were hit hard, while others increased in number. Populations of Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), an important keystone predator in the region, dropped dramatically after the beginning of the epidemic. Several other sea star species, including the Spiny Pink Star (Pisaster brevispinus) also declined. Numbers of the less-common Leather Star (Dermasterias imbricata) and two species of sea urchin, which are prey for sea stars, increased after 2013.

The virus outbreak continues, and will have lasting effects on the ecosystem. Sunflower Sea Stars have effectively disappeared from the Salish Sea, the study concludes. Likely as a result, numbers of urchins have increased, which in turn will lead to more browsing on kelp. As a result, study co-author, Dr. Joe Gaydos, and his colleagues are currently in discussions with the National Marine Fisheries Service to get the Sunflower Sea Star listed as a “species of concern.”

The paper, titled "Devastating Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease on Subtidal Asteroids", is available online here. Another study published earlier this year in the journal, PeerJ, used the REEF data to evaluate the potential trophic impacts of the seastar decline, as seen in the increase in sea urchins. That paper is availble here. View the entire list of all scientific publications that have included REEF data and projects at www.REEF.org/db/publications.

The Faces of REEF: Dennis Bensen

REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. Over 50,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.

This month we highlight Dennis Bensen, member since 2001. Dennis has conducted just over 600 surveys, and is active in several of REEF's surveying regions, including his now home of Hawaii, the western tropical Pacific, and the Tropical Western Atlantic. He is also one of our most active REEF Trip participants, having been on 19 Field Surveys (so far, with more to come!). Here's what Dennis had to say about REEF:

How did you first hear about REEF? I learned to dive when I was 47 years old in 1997. Soon afterward I knew I would pursue the PADI master diver certification. In doing so one needs five specialty courses and one of them that I choose was fish ID. I took it in Bonaire and I was taught by an American marine biologist dive master, who being pregnant at the time, could only snorkel. After a slide show on fish ID we went on a snorkel. She pointed to the fish and I dove down for closer look then back up to her to give her my answer. For the second dive she gave me paper to use. After we finished the second dive she told me we could submit the results to REEF. I didn't feel ready. After that trip I went home with the REEF packet, read up on the organization, and signed up for my first REEF field survey taught by Paul Human in Puerto Rico. And that was it, I never looked back. I actually feel like I am missing something when I dive and do not survey.

Have you been on a REEF survey trip, what was your trip highlight? I could fill up a book with the answer to this one. To date, I have been on 19 REEF Field Survey Trips! Most of them in either Cozumel or Hawaii, where I now live. My most recent REEF Trip was on the Palau Aggressor. This trip was a real eye opener! The Central Indo Pacific region has a huge numbers of species. The ID paper is three times the size what we use here in Hawaii. You are busy, busy, busy from the minute you enter the water. There are fish in this region that are also in Hawaii, but nowhere near the majority of what there is to see, so you are learning, learning, learning. I owe a lot to my dive buddy Pam Wade, and trip leader Christy Semmens, who taught me a lot.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member? This is an easy one. It is the people – whether they are Board members or office staff and volunteers or divers on Field Survey Trips. I have done surveys with many of the Board members and original members of the staff: Lad, Paul, Ned and Anna, Christy and Brice, and Janet (Camp) as well as staff Jane, Nancy, Amy, and Janna. I miss not working the REEF booth at “Beneath the Sea” with Martha or Lad (before moving to Hawaii I lived in New York). Beyond this, there is a host of divers too numerous to mention that have taught me so much and with whom I share a love of diving and recording the fish we see on those dives. Not to mention all those great trip farewell dinners.

In you opinion, what is the most important aspect of REEF’s projects and programs? The data that is collected, the integrity of that data, and the usefulness and research that this data will be used in. It is my own small way of giving back to the preservation and conservation of the oceans we dive in. Diving is such a huge part of my enjoyment of life and to think I can give something back, however small that might be, is very fulfilling and satisfying to me.

Do I dive close to where I live and what is the best part of diving there? As I said I now live in Hawaii. I moved here about 2 years ago to the Big Island of Hawaii, mainly because the best diving in the state is on the west coast of the big island. Honokohau harbor is only 10 minutes from my house and I try to dive out of that marina at least once per month, but I prefer to dive up north on the Kohala Coast. The Kohala Divers dive shop up there often runs a one tank afternoon dive. This is perfect for me. I do not need to get up early, I am, after all, in retirement. And with only one tank I am not too tired afterward. The dive finishes near dinner time so I often stop in Waiklloa and have dinner and a glass of wine at one of the fancy restaurants.

But besides that, and this is true of all diving in Hawaii, I can do it almost any day I want year round, something I for obvious reason did not do while living on Long Island, NY. On average, 25% of all fish here in our state are found only in Hawaii. And grey whale are around in the winter. The whales can be seen on all islands but the Kohala Coast of the big island and the South Shore of Maui form a bottle neck through which the whales must pass to move southward, often allowing for greater sightings and definitely more soundings (hearing them under water, always a thrill for me). I’d like to think of this as my own little corner of the worldwide oceans where my data will have an impact.

Plan Your 2018 Field Survey Trip

Don't miss out - book your 2018 REEF Trip space today.
Dive the Gardens of the Queen in Cuba.
Explore the oceans and mountains of Costa Rica.

Are you a diver or snorkeler looking to make a difference in the health of our oceans? If you haven't already, we hope you will make plans to join us on a REEF Trip in 2018. We have a great lineup of trips and a few spaces remain. You will participate in our citizen science programs, dive with like-minded individuals, and learn about the marine life around you. The full 2018 schedule is online (and keep an eye out for the 2019 schedule to be released this spring).

Here are 2018 trips that still have space:

Grenada, May 12-19, 2018 - More details

Bahamas Lionfish Research Trip, May 26 - June 2, 2018 - More details

Key Largo for REEF's 25th Anniversary, June 23-30, 2018 - More details

Costa Rica Land and Sea Eco-tour, July 14-21, 2018 - More details

Belize Research Expedition, August 18-25, 2018 - More details

Cuba Gardens of the Queen, August 18-25, 2018 - More details

St. Lucia, September 23-30, 2018 - More details

Eastern Caribbean, December 1-8, 2018 - More details

Cozumel, December 1-8, 2018 - More details

We maintain wait lists for full trips, so be sure to let us know if your desired destination is full. 2018 Trips that are already full: Hawaii, Thailand, Fiji, Brazil, Philippines, Cayman Brac, and Maldives.

Unusual Fish Sightings from our Members (August)

Scrawled Trunkfish: (Scrawled Cowfish/Smooth Trunkfish Hybrid). Photo by Linda Baker.Scrawled Trunkfish: (Scrawled Cowfish/Smooth Trunkfish Hybrid). Photo by Linda Baker. Orange Moray: Photo by Todd Fulks.Orange Moray: Photo by Todd Fulks. Striped Bass: Photo by James Guertin.Striped Bass: Photo by James Guertin.

Why Become a Registered REEF.org User?

One of the most exciting features of the new REEF.org Website is the ability to login to the site and gain access to a variety of useful features, including your personal data summary report and survey log, your membership profile, ability to edit your contact information, tracking orders made through the online REEF store, and posting privileges to the discussion forums. To become a registered REEF.org user, go to the Register link on the left hand menu. You will need your REEF member number, last name and email address. You will be asked to create a user name and will then be sent an email with instructions on completing the registration process. If you forgot your member number, check out our REEF.org Web Tip in this e-news issue to find out how to look up your member number. Once you are logged in to the REEF Website, your personalized content will be accessible through a menu on the left hand side.

An important tip – the email and last name that you provide must match what is currently in your REEF membership profile. The email where you receive REEF-in-Brief is the email that is on file. If you encounter an error, please drop us an email with your current contact information.

2 rooms left for REEF lionfish project with Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas - May 11-17,2008

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As part of REEF;s ongoing research partnership studying
lionfish in the tropical Atlantic, we have 2 rooms left (up to 4 people) for
our May 11-17 project in Nassau.

Join REEF’s Lad Akins, marine life authors, filmmakers
and naturalists Ned and Anna DeLoach, Chris Flook - Collector of Specimens for the Bermuda Zoo and Aquarium, Andy
Dehart – General Manager of the National Aquarium in Washington DC, and other REEF volunteers for a week of
lionfish research, collection, tagging, surveying and observation. The project cost is $999.92 pp dbl occ. and
includes accommodations at the Wyndham Cable Beach resort, daily two tank
dives, tanks & wts, and lively presentations and interactions with
knowledgeable reef experts. To reserve
space now, call Pam Christman at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas at (800) 879-9832
or for more project information call Lad Akins at (305) 942-7333. Hope to see you there!

REEF Travel Trips and Tips

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Participants on a Field Survey at the Southern Cross Club in Little Cayman.
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Taking a break in between dives on the Kona Hawaii Field Survey.
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Having fun during a Field Survey in Belize.

As Audrey reported in the previous article, REEF Field Surveys are more than just your average dive vacation. Not only are you joined by like-minded divers and led by dynamic experts in marine life, but the trips often include opportunities to learn more about a local culture and even participate in conservation activities or research. We already have several great destinations lined up for 2009 and are finalizing several more trips for the calendar. These trips run the gambit from traditional Field Surveys with fish ID seminars straight through to scientific research projects and they are all located at some of the best dive destinations with some of the best resorts and dive operators. Visit the REEF Trips Schedule page for details. In addition, here is a sneak peak at two special projects that REEF staff and Board members will be offering in 2009.

First is a Lionfish Trip to the Turks and Caicos next Spring with REEF Director of Special Projects Lad Akins. A lot has been happening with this pivotal environmental situation, and REEF has been at the forefront, gathering data, coordinating research and educating the public on the issues. We hope all of you saw the NBC Nightly News segment featuring the important work that is being done by REEF on the invasion of Indo-Pacific Lionfish in Atlantic waters. The REEF Lionfish Trip will have participants working as part of a team, to search for, collect and tag lionfish specimens, document abundance of native reef fish at lionfish sites, help collect samples of lionfish for dissection to determine prey and reproduction, and learn about invasive species issues. This is cutting edge research and your help is needed to aid in gathering information to learn more about the problem and to work towards finding a solution.

Next, how about a Shark Diving Week with our very own REEF Board of Trustees Member, Director of Biological Programs for the National Aquarium and now the Discovery Channel Shark Week Consultant, Andy Dehart? Andy is becoming quite well known for his expertise and passion for sharks and our REEF Shark Week will certainly be a trip that fills quickly. Destination and program details coming soon so stay tuned.

So, the REEF Travel Tip for this month is - start planing now! The 2009 REEF Trips will fill up quickly and once they are filled that ship has sailed. By booking early and planning ahead you will be able to participate in exactly which REEF Trip you want for 2009 and take a Dive Vacation that Counts! REEF’s partnership with Caradonna allows you the ability to book your airfare at the same time you book your trip for (as we like to call it) one-stoplight-parrotfish shopping.

Please check out the REEF Trips section of our website for details. And keep checking back as we will have the rest of the trips up in the next couple of weeks with more details on all of our 2009 REEF Trips being posted.

Call 1-877-295-7333 (REEF) or e-mail REEF@caradonna.com for trip availability and information – some trips are already starting to fill up. Don’t let the 2009 REEF Trip Ship sail without you!!!

REEF Travel Trips and Tips - DiveAssure Announces New Program to Support REEF

<<This article was originally published in January 2009. This promotion has ended. Please contact REEF HQ at trips@REEF.org to find out about current promotions with DiveAssure.>>

DiveAssure, a leader in the field of diving and dive-travel insurance, has committed to support REEF to advance our projects and activities that benefit marine environments. DiveAssure is offering REEF members a significant discount on two levels of coverage - 50% off the regular price for the Platinum program and 35% off the Diamond program. DiveAssure offers membership benefits including the best insurance programs that are tailored to meet the needs and demands of divers. Only DiveAssure offers primary coverage with the lowest deductibles and the highest limits. In addition, DiveAssure offers the only comprehensive dive and travel program available on the market. The Diamond program provides divers with multi-trip or single-trip annual coverage and is available in varying levels of trip cancellation/interruption limits, to ensure that your trip will always be covered, according to your needs.

DiveAssure cares about its members and the future of diving. That is why DiveAssure donates a percentage of its profits to the maintenance and improvement of local diving environments, dive medicine and dive research organizations as well as projects aimed at improving the safety and well-being of the diving environment.

To take advantage of the significant savings that DiveAssure is offering to REEF members, visit the DiveAssure webpage to determine which preferred level of coverage best suits your needs (discounts eligible on Platinum and Diamond programs only). Then contact DiveAssure toll free at 866-898-0921 Ext 1, 9 - 5 PM EST. Be sure to mention that you are a REEF member; you will be asked to provide your REEF member number for verification in order to receive the discounted pricing. If you can't remember your REEF member number, you can look it up here.

REEF greatly appreciates DiveAssure's support of our programs and their recognition of the importance of protecting our oceans!

Become a Fan of REEF on Facebook!

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Become a Fan of REEF on Facebook.

We are excited to announce the launch of the *official* REEF Facebook page -- Become a Fan of REEF today. The REEF Facebook Page gives you the latest information about REEF's programs and events, our marine conservation work, and see exclusive content and stories. It's also a great place for our members to post pictures, fish stories and whatever is on their mind. We're building a strong community to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active ocean stewards and citizen scientists. And we want you to join us!

To Become a Fan: Go to REEF's Facebook page, log in to your Facebook account, and click Become a fan at the top of the page. Or just click on the "Become a Fan" link in the box below. If you don't have a Facebook account, sign up for one.

Please help us spread the word about REEF. Click the Share button on the REEF Facebook page or the Cause to post them to your wall. To find the Share button, look on the bottom left side of the REEF Facebook page. Thank you for helping us build our online community and for supporting our mission to conserve marine ecosystems!

REEF staff and Board of Trustees would like to extend a big thank you to REEF member Park Chapman for all of his help in getting REEF's Facebook Page up and running. And thanks to our first 200+ fans who have already become a part of our online community.

Damselfish Revised

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A mystery damselfish posted to the REEF ID Central Discussion Board. What do you think it is? Photo by Carol Cox.
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Juvenile damselfish are a bit easier to ID. Do you know which one this is? Photo by Carol Cox.

Those pesky Caribbean damselfish! They have been confusing even the most experienced REEF surveyors for years! After consulting with the leading damselfish taxonomist experts, Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach revised the descriptions and updated pictures for four species - Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis), Beaugregory (Stegastes leucostictus), Longfin Damselfish (Stegastes diencaeus), and Dusky Damselfish (Stegastes adustus). One of the most noticeable changes from what many of us learned - Cocoa Damselfish don't always have a spot at the base of the tale and Beaugregory often have a spot!

A recent discussion thread on the REEF ID Central Discussion Board highlights the confusion around damselfish. Take a look at the thread (http://www.reef.org/node/3853) and see what you think!

The revised pages, meant to replace pages 124-129 in the 3rd edition of Reef Fish Identification, are available for download as PDFs below, courtesy of New World Publications. The text and pictures were reviewed by Dr. Ross Robertson with the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute in Panama, who is considered the world's authority on Western Tropical Atlantic damselfishes, and Dr. Mark Steele at University of California, Santa Barbara, another damselfish taxonomist.

Long-time REEF Advanced Assessment Team member, Neil Ericsson, has also compiled the key features into a handy matrix. The matrix is available as a PDF here. All of these resources are also linked from the Damselfish Revised page on the REEF website -- www.REEF.org/damselfish.

 

Revised Damselfish Descriptions and Pictures (PDFs)

Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis)

Beaugregory (Stegastes leucostictus)

Longfin Damselfish (Stegastes diencaeus)

Dusky Damselfish (Stegastes adustus)

 

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub