History of the GAFC

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!

REEF Survey Super Stars -- the Golden Hamlet Club Welcomes Two New Members

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The elusive golden hamlet is the namesake of the club reserved for REEF volunteers who have conducted over 1,000 surveys. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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Bruce Purdy has been an active supporter of REEF's lionfish research in the Bahamas.
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Dave Grenda conducting a transect survey during a REEF Wellwood monitoring project.

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!!!

Hoyt S Vandenberg -- Plans for Sinking in Early May, REEF To Monitor Fish Recruitment

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The Vandenberg at dock in the early 1980's. Photo courtesy of the Artificial Reefs of the Keys.

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.

Blue Croaker -- What a Find

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The mystery solved -- a Blue Croaker. Photo by Paul Humann.

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.

California and Pacific Northwest ID Courses Available on CD-ROM

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A REEF volunteers conducting a survey in Monterey Bay. Photo by Pete Naylor.

REEF is proud to release the latest version in our series of instructional marine life identification courses – Fishwatching in California. The California curriculum consists of three courses on one CD – divided into Southern California, Channel Islands, and Central/Northern California. Pictures and text are included and are geared for anyone interested in teaching Fish ID – ideal for dive shops and instructors, dive clubs, marine science centers and aquariums, and other groups. This course completes the library of West Coast curricula: California Fish ID, California Invertebrates and Algae, Pacific Northwest Fish, and Pacific Northwest Invertebrates. We would like to thank all of the photographers who generously donated underwater images for these courses!

These instructor-led courses are a great way to introduce divers and snorkelers to the variety of marine life that can be seen during their time in the water. Each module contains a CD-ROM with images with an easy-to-use teaching curriculum to train students in identification and REEF survey methodology. A sample starter kit is also included. Courses can be taught in approximately 2-3 hours and cover 50-70 of the most common species for an area.

The California Fish ID curriculum, along with all of the other curricula modules, are available online in REEF's store here -- http://www.reef.org/node/437

REEF Data Featured in New Scientific Publication on Shark Population Status

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Blacktip sharks are one of the 14 species that were analyzed in the recently published paper. Photo (c) Paul Humann.
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REEF data are well suited for rarely seen species like sharks because of the wide geographic coverage by REEF volunteers. Photo by Ned DeLaoch.

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.

Exciting Results from the 2011 Grouper Moon Project

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Follow baby Nassau grouper on their 45-day journey at http://www.REEF.org/programs/grouper_moon/adrift
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Guy Harvey joined the Grouper Moon team this year, filming a documentary on the spawning aggregation. Here's Guy interviewing long-time Little Cayman resident and fisherman, Mr. Bruce Eldemire.
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A great group of REEF volunteers and scientists, Oregon State University researchers, and staff from the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, made up this year's Grouper Moon team!
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Project scientists, Dr. Brice Semmens from REEF and Dr. Scott Heppell from Oregon Sate University get ready to release a current drifter.

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.

The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Sally Davies and Helen Davies

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One of Helen's favorite finds -- a Secretary Blenny. Photo by Jonathan Lavan.
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The sister duo aboard the Nai'a in Fiji, during the first REEF Field Survey to the South Pacific earlier this month.

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.

Grouper Moon Project - Protecting a Caribbean Icon

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REEF volunteer, Heather George, swims amongst thousands of Nassau grouper, collecting information for the Grouper Moon Project. Photo by Paul Humann.
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Cayman Prep 4th year students working through a lesson on Nassau grouper as part of a new education initiative that REEF is leading in the Cayman Islands. Photo by Todd Bohannon.
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A juvenile Nassau grouper finds cover in shallow seagrass and rubble off Little Cayman. Photo by Jim Hellemn.
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Dr. Steve Gittings (REEF scientific advisor, center) with Dr. Guy Harvey (left) and Dr. Brice Semmens (right), after collecting eggs on spawning night. Photo by REEF.

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.

Putting It to Work: New Publication From the Grouper Moon Project

Parallel mounted lasers projected on the side of a Nassau grouper at the Little Cayman spawning aggregation.

A new paper was just published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation documenting a key monitoring technique established by scientists from REEF and our Grouper Moon collaborators. The paper, "Documenting recovery of a spawning aggregation through size frequency analysis from underwater laser calipers measurements", describes a technique to monitor changes in fish size on the Little Cayman spawning aggregation through time that does not require the capture and handling of fish. Analysis of seven years of data show that length-distribution data can be collected by divers using a video-based system with parallel lasers calibrated to a specific distance apart. This novel technique is one of just several being conducted as part of the Grouper Moon Project. View the paper online here. Find out more about our work on endangered Nassau Grouper by visiting the Grouper Moon Project webpage.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub