Putting It To Work: New Publication on Reef Biodiversity Using REEF Data

REEF surveyors are great at recording diversity! There are at least 5 species of fish in this picture. Photo by Nathan Brown.

Data generated by the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project provide an unparalleled opportunity to examine patterns in reef fish diversity (the number and types of species) at the scales of reefs, regions, and even an entire ocean basin. Authors of one recent scientific study took advantage of the over 25,000 Expert REEF surveys conducted at 80 sites from 6 Caribbean ecoregions over 17 years. The authors of the paper, which was recently published in the journal PLoS ONE, used the REEF data to evaluate patterns of biodiversity across many spatial scales (from individual sites to ecoregions). They also incorporated factors such as fisheries impacts and how connected different regions are to each other through ocean currents. They compared levels of different types of diversity-- alpha diversity (α-diversity) that explains local diversity (the number of species found in a given place), and beta diversity (β-diversity) that explains the difference in diversity among sites. Their results showed that fish assemblages are more homogenous than expected, particularly at the ecoregion scale. Within each ecoregion, diversity was mainly attributed to alpha diversity, indicating that fishes within each ecoregion are a subsample of the same species pool. Studies like this one that examine regional patterns of diversity in coral reef systems are important because of declining biodiversity in many areas. The paper's citation is: Francisco-Ramos V, Arias-González JE . 2013. Additive Partitioning of Coral Reef Fish Diversity Across Hierarchical Spatial Scales Throughout the Caribbean. PLoS ONE. 8(10): e78761. To read the full paper, or any of the other 50+ scientific papers that have included REEF data and programs, visit the REEF Publications page.

Putting It To Work: Who's Using REEF Data, July 2014

Rainbow Parrotfish - one of the important grazers on Caribbean reefs. Photo by Ned DeLoach.

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:

- Scientists from NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources are using REEF data to evaluate populations of seabass and grouper in the Caribbean.

- A scientist from the University of Washington School of Marine and Environmental Affairs is using REEF data on fishes and invertebrates to evaluate MPAs in the Puget Sound.

- A professor from California State San Luis Obispo is using REEF data to evaluate populations of three large parrotfish species in the Caribbean (Blue, Midnight, Rainbow).

The Faces of REEF: Joyce Schulke

Joyce diving with a turtle.
Purple Reeffish, a species typically found on deep reefs, can sometimes surprise us. Photo by Carol Cox.
Joyce surveying in Cozumel.

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 Joyce Schulke, one of REEF's earliest members. She has been a REEF member since 1996. An active surveyor who lives in Florida, Joyce has conducted almost 900 surveys to date and has been a member of REEF's Advanced Assessment Team for the Tropcial Western Atlantic region since it's beginnings. Here's what she had to say about REEF:

How did you become involved with REEF?

In 1989 I snorkeled in Cancun. Diving lessons followed and the underwater world was wide open. Being a professional photographer, it was natural for me to learn underwater photography as well. Identifying those fish led me to the Humann and DeLoach book, Reef Fish Identification. It talked about REEF and so I followed through and became a fish surveyor in 1996. In 1999 I qualified as a member of REEF’s Advanced Assessment Team. Being a surveyor inspired me to look harder and enjoy each dive more.

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys?

Suddenly, even common fish are important to find and record. It is exciting to be part a larger goal and I have gotten a good idea of distribution of species, habitat, behavior, and changes to specific areas over the years. There is always a surprise. After diving to 130 feet to see my first Purple Reeffish in the southern Caribbean, I found one at 13 feet in Marathon Key. Recently, seeing the Longnose Batfish far from its normal habitat in 13 feet of water at Blue Heron Bridge in West Palm, Florida, is another great example of the treasures awaiting those who really search.

I have specialized in the TWA and have done all of my diving there. I get enthusiastic when talking fish. I have currently seen and identified 519 species of TWA fish. My husband, Tom, and I used to divide the cost of a dive trip by the number of new species we found. You can imagine how expensive some of those species have become!

Where is your favorite place to dive?

Without hesitation, St. Vincent has added most of my unusual finds, with dozens of new species added on each trip. One trip produced 18 species of eels alone. The diversity of types of diving spots and willingness of Dive St. Vincent to take us to the odd spots makes this a favorite. However, now that I live in Florida, the lure of Blue Heron Bridge in West Palm, has added a few more dozen new species in the last two years.

What fish am I looking for now?

If I haven’t seen it yet, I want it! Whether it’s a Spanish Sardine or a Longnose Batfish, I’m elated. Of course, when I see one that’s never been on a REEF survey before, I grin while emailing REEF for a new fish code.

What do you say to others about joining REEF?

I cannot encourage others enough. Being a REEF surveyor is a great contribution to ocean research and preservation. The real bonus, however, is how it adds a whole new purpose and enjoyment to your personal diving adventures.

Support REEF's Conservation Science Programs

An acoustic receiver listens for pings emitted from nearby tagged fish.
REEF Grouper Moon scientists used acoustic tracking data to better understand Nassau Grouper ecology on Little Cayman.
A mobile receiver used to find tagged fish.
Nassau Grouper is the focus of REEF's Grouper Moon Project. Photo by Brice Semmens.

Acoustic tagging is one of the most powerful marine conservation technologies currently available. REEF uses this technology in both the Grouper Moon Project and the Invasive Lionfish Program to help determine movement, ranges, behavior, and more. But tags and receivers are expensive! We need your help in furthering REEF's valuable marine conservation initiatives by supporting the purchase and implementation of these valuable tools. You can donate securely online at www.REEF.org/contribute. Read on to learn more about these high-tech tools.

What is an acoustic tag, hydrophone, and array? Acoustic tags are small electronic devices that, once secured to a fish, broadcast their identification by ultrasonic sound. Hydrophones that can detect these ultrasonic sounds are placed underwater via a buoy to record the presence or absence of fish. A group of hydrophones strategically placed in an area is called an array. Data from the array are periodically downloaded and analyzed to determine fish movement, residency, behavior, and more.

How do tagging studies make a difference for marine conservation?

  • Allows researchers to determine home ranges of fish to better inform management strategies including sizes and locations of protected areas
  • Documents behavioral activities, such as spawning or seasonal movement, to help researchers and managers better understand the biology and ecology of key species
  • Facilitates collaborative marine research through sharing of hydrophone data and array setups
  • Contributes to inspiring visualizations of fish movements for scientists, policymakers, and marine life enthusiasts

REEF's Grouper Moon Project has relied heavily on this technology to help answer questions necessary to hep conserve Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations. Populations of this iconic species have declined dramatically over the past half-century due to overfishing during winter months as they aggregate to reproduce. To find out more about this activity, REEF researchers and our partners at Cayman Islands Department of Environment set up an array of acoustic receivers and started tagging Nassau Grouper in 2005. Using data from this technology, REEF created a video that shows the remarkable migrations Nassau Grouper undertake during the spawning season. This visualization tool played a critical role in the creation of proposed legislation aimed at species conservation in the Cayman Islands. To watch this movie and read more about it, please click here.

Please make a donation at www.REEF.org/contribute so REEF can continue using acoustic tagging in projects and programs. This valuable tool helps ensure that we can protect iconic species like Nassau Grouper in the most effective manner. Thank you for your support.

Oceans of Thanks to Our Members

There are a few limited-edition 2015 prints left. Donors of $250 or more, received by April 4, will be sent this signed and numbered, limited edition print of a beautiful Fiji reef scene by Paul Humann.

I want to thank everyone who donated during our winter fundraising campaign. With member support, REEF was able to raise $115,000. Your contributions drive REEF programs, from protecting keystone species to educating the next generation of ocean enthusiasts. If you haven't donated yet, there are still a few limited-edition prints left for donations of $250 and over that are received by April 4th. You can donate online or call us at 305-852-0030.

This year’s campaign focused on our changing seas. Now, more than ever before, it is critical for REEF to monitor the effects from pressures on marine ecosystems. Pressures of great concern include overfishing on endangered species like Nassau Grouper, invasive species that threaten native ecosystems like Lionfish, and temperature changes that shift species habitat range like El Nino. Our dedicated surveyors have seen the changes over decades of underwater exploration. With your donations, REEF can ensure these changes are documented and distributed to researchers for the protection of marine species and habitats.

Thank you again for donating this season!

Review REEF on GreatNonprofits

Do you think REEF is doing great work? Please take a few minutes to tell others about your experience with REEF! Your personal story and feedback help us gain visibility and help us improve. Please share your experience through the GreatNonprofits.org website at: http://gr8np.org/go/yKD

Thanks to such great feedback by our members in 2015, REEF once again achieved "Top-Rated" status on the GreatNonprofits webpage. We need at least ten new reviews in 2016 to maintain this honored status. Please help us.

Here's an excerpt from a recent review from a fellow REEF member: "My daughter and I have been volunteer members of REEF for almost twenty years. She was seven when we joined, and became a certified junior diver at ten- In great part due to the fun we had together as REEF members & volunteers. Avid snorkelers, and divers, we love diving with a purpose. Our favorite "self-challenge" is to see how many species we can identify on outing; always trying to better ourselves!" Thank you!

Stocking Stuffer

REEF Postcard for Sale

The holidays will be upon us before you know it and REEF is encouraging you to go on line to the REEF Store and purchase your holiday stocking stuffers like our beautiful note cards, wonderful books and DVD's.  We still have plenty of Sensational Seas DVD's available as well.  We recently updated the store with a large number of exclusive items that you can only get from REEF, so please check it out and put us on your shopping list as REEF funnels all proceeds to help fund our various programs. 

We would also like to give our warm thanks to Eleanor Cavanaugh who is the artist behind our wonderful collection.  

To buy apparel at our store, click here

To visit our store for your diving materials, click here... 


Happy holiday week! I hope you are looking forward to Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday season.

REEF is pleased to bring you our monthly update on the many projects that continue to actively engage you, our valuable members, in marine conservation. Before we get there, though, I want to ask for your help in meeting an ambitious but critical goal to keep these projects going: please help REEF raise $100,000 by the end of the year. Please click here to make a secure, tax-deductible donation today.

Your support helped EEF Science Director, Dr. Christy Semmens, participate in the annual Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute meeting held earlier this month, where she presented the results of monitoring two artificial reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Your support helped REEF Field Operations Director, Joe Cavanaugh, participate in multi-stakeholder training to protect coral reefs in Akumal, Mexico. Your support helped develop new online data entry for the Pacific and Hawaii REEF survey regions, allowing REEF to improve data management. Your support helped REEF promote the Volunteer Survey Project as a diver acquisition eco-activity to the dive industry at DEMA Show 2007. Your support helped to develop an innovative home study course to train divers and snorkelers in "fishwatching" and conducting marine life surveys. Your support counts for a lot at REEF! Please click here to make a secure, tax-deductible donation today.

Other items of interest this month include tips for using the new REEF.org website, a design contest for the 2008 Field Survey tshirt, important news about the REEF Store and interesting happenings at REEF HQ.

Enjoy your turkey and we'll see you next month!

Best fishes,


Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Visits REEF HQ

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The Congresswoman learns about exotic invasive lionfish from Special Projects Manager, Lad Akins.
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Director of Field Operations Joseph Cavanaugh walks the Congresswoman through the new REEF website.
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Executive Director Leda Cunningham and Chairman of the Board Paul Humann recognize the Congresswoman's service to marine conservation.

On Tuesday, March 4, REEF was pleased to host Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen at its headquarters in Key Largo, Florida. Ros-Lehtinen represents Florida’s 18th district, including Monroe County and the Florida Keys. REEF Board and staff discussed the importance of training volunteers in marine conservation to preserving the long-term health of coral reefs in the Florida Keys and worldwide.

“I am thrilled to be visiting REEF and getting a look at their wonderful conservation and diving programs as this group is comprised of those who truly enjoy the beauty and serenity of the seas, divers and marine conservationists,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

The group laid out plans to train volunteers to conduct biological monitoring and assessment of key managed areas through the REEF Volunteer Survey Project. Ros-Lehtinen suggested presenting scientific findings in local schools and pledged to learn to do marine life surveys on her next visit to the Florida Keys. The potential threat posed by exotic invasive lionfish to the Florida Keys reef tract and ways to educate residents about the problem were also discussed.

“This is a great opportunity to share some of the important work REEF is doing to preserve the natural, national heritage of the Florida Keys coral reef ecosystem,” said REEF Executive Director, Leda Cunningham. “We are honored to have the Congresswoman at REEF HQ and look forward to working collaboratively on projects such as training volunteers to collect marine life data and keeping exotic invasive lionfish out of Florida Keys waters.”

Akumal Field Survey Report

REEF Surveyors at the Mayan Ruins of Tulum
REEF Fish ID Class at Bahia Principe Resort
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REEF divers blur in one of the cenote's haloclines (saltwater and freshwater interface)
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One of many interesting species of fish endemic to the cenotes is the Sailfin Molly (Poecilia velifera)
Proud new foster parent, REEF volunteer Laura Dias, by Loggerhead nest where she witnessed egg laying the previous night

My husband and I recently joined 10 other REEF volunteers on a Field Survey to Akumal, Mexico. Akumal is located on the Mayan Riviera, quite near the Mayan ruins at Tulum, and about 60+ miles from Cancun, Mexico. Our time was filled with diving and conducting REEF surveys, fish identification seminars, exploring cenotes, and learning about sea turtle nesting research.

We stayed at Gran Bahia Principe Resorts, part of an international resort group, which is really 3 resorts in one and covers an enormous acreage on the ocean. The area was so large that one had to catch one of the resort’s trams to travel from one place to another. Sunny weather is the norm that time of year and we had no rain the entire week.

One of the interesting geographic features in this part of Mexico is the cenote, a type of sinkhole which connects to subterranean bodies of water and sometimes cave systems. The rainwater which fills the cenote is crystal-clear because it has been filtered through rock substrata and contains very little particulate matter. The REEF group had the opportunity to dive and snorkel several of these cenotes when ocean conditions turned too rough for dives on the reef, and it proved to be an amazing and unique experience! Since freshwater and salt water are both found in some cenotes, REEF divers surveyed some unusual fish, and experienced the sensation of diving through a halocline, a region below the surface of a body of water where there is a significant change in density due, in the case of cenotes, to increased salinity. Many of the divers described the experience of ascending from salt water into fresh as akin to a dream state. –“The fresh water was so clear, it was hard to believe I was still underwater!" Strange and unusual formations in the caves accentuated the dreamlike atmosphere. Illuminated only by divers’ lights, stalagmites, stalactites and columns stirred the imagination. Fish, bats and birds find a sanctuary in these caves.

Another unique element of Bahia Principe was a local environmental group, Eco-Bahia, whose members work with the resort to help preserve the stands of coral and other sealife found off the beaches. Eco Bahia’s representative, Diana Garcia Urrutia, explained to REEF members all the goals of their program, including the preservation of sea turtle nests. Many sea turtles, mostly Loggerheads and Hawksbills, return to Bahia Principe’s beaches each summer to dig their nests and deposit their eggs. Members of Eco Bahia along with community volunteers protect the turtles as they nest, then collect the eggs and rebury them in a safe, fenced environment just off the beach. When the baby turtles begin to dig out, Eco Bahia volunteers gather them up and bring in local school children who name each baby and send it safely out to sea with a kiss and a blessing. What an excellent way to assure that younger generations will have an emotional connection to the wildlife of their area!


The Akumal Field Survey was certainly a pleasurable and enlightening experience! To find out more about the REEF Field Survey Program and to book your space on a dive vacation that counts, visit the REEF Trips section of our webpage. To view photo albums from the Akumal Field Survey, click on these links: Akumal album 1Akumal album 2Akumal album 3Akumal album 4. The Akumal Field Survey Data Summary is also available online.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub