Grouper Moon Project 2010

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Over 4,000 Nassau grouper can be found on the Little Cayman spawning aggregation. This is the largest known aggregation of this endangered reef fish. Photo by Phil Bush.
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Spawning was documented during four nights on the Little Cayman site. Photo by Brice Semmens.
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REEF Board of Trustee member, Heather George, and REEF Advisory Panel Member, Dr. Steve Gittings, helped with this year's field effort.
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Denise Mizell, along with Wayne Sullivan and the crew of the Glen Ellen, made up the Grand Cayman team.

Since 2001, REEF has led the Grouper Moon Project, a multi-faceted, collaborative research effort with the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment (CIDOE) aimed at better understanding Nassau grouper reproduction and the role that marine reserves can play in the long-term protection of this endangered species. Earlier this month, we had researchers and volunteers in the field for two weeks to conduct field research on spawning aggregations in Grand Cayman and Little Cayman. The site on Little Cayman represents one of the largest known remaining aggregations of Nassau grouper; our research will provide valuable guidance to both the Cayman Islands government and others throughout the Caribbean on how to best protect this important coral reef fish.

In 2003 the Cayman Island Marine Conservation Board instituted an 8-year fishing ban on Nassau grouper at all known aggregation sites in the Cayman Islands (both current and historic). This followed the discovery by fisherman of 7,000 aggregating Nassau grouper on the west end of Little Cayman in 2001 and the subsequent harvest of 4,000 of those fish over two spawning seasons. At the time, all other known Nassau grouper aggregations in the Cayman Islands had become inactive due to over-harvest. Thanks to a three-year grant awarded in 2008 by the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts, REEF is conducting research through the Grouper Moon Project to evaluate the current status of the Cayman Islands spawning aggregations and the effect of these harvest protections -- “The reproductive biology of remnant Nassau grouper stocks: implications for Cayman Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA) management”.

The broad goals for the 2010 spawning season were to continue monitoring recovery in the large spawning aggregation on Little Cayman, and to expand research into the fate of remnant spawning aggregations on Grand Cayman; aggregations on this island were fished to exhaustion in the recent past. REEF continued education and outreach efforts through public talks about spawning aggregations and the Grouper Moon research. As the sunset provision on the current legislation nears, REEF is working closely with the Cayman Islands government to translate the findings from our research into effective long-term protections. I spent time with the Honorable Mark Scotland, the Minister of Health, Environment, Youth, Sports & Culture, which oversees the Department of Environment in the Cayman Islands, discussing the project, our ground-breaking results, and recommendations for the future of this iconic species.

2010 Aggregation Season Results Summary

The Little Cayman team continued the long-term monitoring of this aggregation, which includes counting the number of fish that show up, estimating the size of the fish, and recording the timing and amount of spawning observed. The REEF research team uses lasers mounted on a video camera to record sizes of fish. If you would like to see what the Little Cayman aggregation looks like during the day, check out this video on YouTube. You will see the laser marks on the fish. Note that these are all Nassau grouper, just in different spawning colors. The team estimated that the number of fish showing up at the aggregation is approaching 4,000. We are also seeing a decrease if average size, which indicates that younger fish are starting to show up (good news!). Spawning was observed on four consecutive nights, starting 4 days after the full moon.

The Grand Cayman team’s primary goal was to document the remnant Nassau grouper aggregation on the East End of Grand Cayman and hopefully observe spawning. The status of this aggregation was initially documented by a Grouper Moon team in 2009. This year, with a lot of help from our partners at CIDOE and Wayne Sullivan and his crew aboard the Glen Ellen, REEF volunteer Denise Mizell was able to head up this critical component of our research. While several hundred fish were found at this historical spawning site, spawning was not documented. Unfortunately, we believe that fisherman were illegally fishing on the aggregation when our team was not on site. It is possible that this disturbance prevented the fish from spawning. This is disappointing news, but we are hopeful that the Cayman Islands government will pass revised legislation and provide more enforcement before next spawning season in order to protect the few remaining Nassau grouper on Grand Cayman.

Why Does This Matter?

Nassau grouper are not just icons of the Caribbean; they are a social and ecological cornerstone of the region’s coral reefs. Historically, Nassau grouper represented one of the region’s most economically important fisheries. Unfortunately, due to intense harvest on spawning aggregations, their populations have dwindled to a fraction of their historic numbers. The species became the first Caribbean reef fish to be listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the species is candidate listed under the US Endangered Species Act. The precipitous decline in mass spawning aggregations of Caribbean grouper species has been well documented. The majority of known Caribbean aggregation sites are now inactive due to the ease with which aggregating species are caught. And those that are still active contain significantly fewer fish than the 10s of thousands that historically gathered at these special places.

As part of our work on the Grouper Moon Project, REEF will continue to develop a comprehensive assessment of the status of the Cayman Island’s Nassau grouper spawning population as a guide for future Nassau grouper restoration and conservation policy.

Collaborators and Supporters Who Make This Project Possible

REEF would like to thank our collaborators at the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, specifically Phil Bush, Bradley Johnson, Croy McCoy, James Gibb, Tim Austin, Gina Ebanks-Pietre, Keith Neale, Delwin McLaughlin and Robert Walton, as well as Drs. Scott and Selina Heppell from Oregon State University. REEF Volunteers have always been at the core of our Grouper Moon field work and 2010 was no exception – heartfelt thanks to Heather George, Steve Gittings, Denise Mizell and Sheryl Shea. The support and assistance of Thor Dunmire is also greatly appreciated. The Grouper Moon Project has continued through the years empowered by the first year’s success and the passion of early project leader Leslie Whaylen Clift. Assistance from OSU graduate student, Stephanie Kraft Archer, is much appreciated. Principal financial support is from the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the CIDOE. Additional funding is from Mr. Wayne Panton, Mr. Dan Scott, Clive and Stella Wood, Franklin and Cassandra Neal, and hundreds of REEF members. Continued in-kind logistical support from island businesses and residents, including the Little Cayman Beach Resort/Reef Divers, the Southern Cross Club, Peter Hillenbrand, Dottie Benjamin, and Judie Clee is also much appreciated. To alleviate the constraints of diving deep depths on regular scuba, several other sponsors came on board to assist in the project, including Divetech and PM Gas of Grand Cayman, Silent Diving of Brockville, Ontario and Shearwater Research of Vancouver, British Columbia.

And finally, our work on Grand Cayman would not have been possible without the generous support of Wayne Sullivan, who donated his vessel the Glen Ellen, his time (and patience), his equipment and technical diving expertise, and his crew, Brady Booton and several others.

For more information on the project, visit the Grouper Moon Project Webpage. If you would like to support this critical marine conservation research, please donate today through the REEF Website or call REEF HQ at 305-852-0030.

REEF News Tidbits

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These good-looking shirts are a great way to show your support for REEF's Nassau grouper conservation programs!

Nassau Grouper Shirts Back in the Online Store - After selling out, "Grumpy" shirts are now back in stock in the REEF online store. These short and long-sleeve shirts features the face of a Nassau Grouper. "Grumpy" is the artwork of Rogest, who created the piece to celebrate REEF's Grouper Moon Project and our work to conserve this Caribbean icon. The shirts feature the tag line "Extinction Makes Me Grumpy". Get yours today, they won't last long.

New REEF Field Stations - This past month, we welcomed Beaches Boscobel Resort & Golf Club in Jamaica to our growing list of Field Stations.  They join the almost 200 Field Stations and Independent Instructors worldwide.

Did You Know -- REEF Online Data Entry Available in All Regions - REEF surveyors in ALL regions can now submit their data online. We greatly encourage everyone to enter their surveys online rather than use the paper scanforms, if possible. And remember -- if you conduct a survey at a site that is not yet in REEF's Zone Code database, send us an email (data@reef.org) with the site name and latitude/longitude of the site and we will create the code for you. The 8-digit zone code must be in the system before you can enter data from the site.

Become a Fan of REEF on Facebook - The REEF Facebook Page is a place to find the latest information about our programs and events, REEF's marine conservation work, and exclusive content and stories. It's also a great place for our members to post pictures, fish stories and whatever is on their mind. Become a "Fan" today!

The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Don Judy

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Don briefing a beach visitor about local coral reefs, and spreading the word about REEF. Photo by Liz Foote.
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Sailfin Tang, displaying its beautiful "sail". Photo by John Hoover.
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Don with marine scientist, Linda Castro, who is holding up a parrotfish model at Honolua Bay. Photo by Rick Long.

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 Don Judy (REEF member since 2008). Don lives on Maui, Hawaii, and has conducted 365 REEF surveys. Here's what Don had to say about REEF:

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

The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated islands in the world. Over 2000 miles separate them from the nearest continental land mass. I have been an avid snorkeler here for many years. When I heard about doing surveys for REEF, I knew I would truly enjoy my snorkeling even more doing surveys and reporting my sightings. I am fortunate to live near the ocean and my favorite reef snorkel site is five minutes from my home. When I enter the underwater world, I am always captivated by the dazzling array of tropical fish and their behaviors. Showing off their colors with darting and swirling motions, these beautiful creatures cause the reef to explode with life.

What are some of your favorite places to conduct REEF surveys? Do you have a favorite fish you see there?

The reef I most frequently survey is called Kahekili. I have done more than 300 surveys on this reef and feel like I have an ongoing personal relationship with all these wonderful fish. The water is crystal clear with an average temperature about 76 degrees. This reef always provides me with a chance to see 75 to 100 different species of fish. My favorite local fish on this reef is the Sailfin Tang (Zebrasoma veliferum). When they raise their colorful dorsal fin, it looks like an elevated boat sail. Upon closer look, the colors in the elevated dorsal fin become an intricately woven spectrum of colors and patterns.

The island of Lanai (about 9 miles west) has another of my favorite reef beaches, Hulopoe. It is a protected marine reef featuring large schools of endemic fish found only in the Hawaiian Islands. Here my favorite fish is the Spectacled Parrotfish (Chlorurus perspicillatus). This spectacular parrotfish is the largest of the endemic parrotfish. Super (or terminal) males are deep blue green with a conspicuous dark band (the "spectacles") across the top of the snout.

What other ways do you help REEF besides being such an active surveyor?

Over the years, I have been able to recruit new REEF members. I do “outreach” stations for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary here on Maui and this puts me in constant contact with snorkelers and divers. Naturally, I talk about REEF and doing REEF surveys when people come to us for information. I like it that the REEF surveys that we do on Maui can help establish populations baselines in determining the direction of fish population.

What are some of your most memorable finds on a REEF survey?

The Commerson’s Frogfish, with their ability to disguise themselves while sitting right in front of your eyes on a piece of coral-mimicking the colors of the coral, and the Oriental Flying Gurnard, with their enormous wing like pectoral fins and wide square heads.

REEF Database Tops 150,000 Surveys!

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The REEF database topped 150,000 surveys this month! The lucky 150k survey was conducted by Ross Whiteside on June 13, 2011, at Mixing Bowl in Little Cayman. Ross and his wife Terri have been active REEF members since 2002 and are members of the Advanced Assessment Team. Congrats Ross and Terri, and thanks to all of our surveying members for helping us achieve this landmark!

Great Annual Fish Count 2012

The 21st annual Great Annual Fish Count (GAFC) is rapidly approaching! Will you be participating? We encourage local shops, dive clubs, and other groups to organize an activity anytime during the month of July (and often training events in June). You can view events already scheduled, and add your own, by visiting www.fishcount.org.

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

REEF Welcomes New Communications and Affiliate Program Manager

When University of Kansas graduate Keri Kenning joined REEF in August 2012 as a Marine Conservation Intern, Keys residents constantly reminded her, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” Five months, sixty dives, and zero lionfish stings later, Keri has abstained from clicking those ruby red heels together and returning to Kansas. She is staying at REEF headquarters in Key Largo as the new Communications and Affiliate Program Manager. Keri graduated in May 2012 from the University of Kansas with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and University Honors. She began snorkeling at 10, diving at 14, and has been a bona fide Critterwatcher from the start. As an undergraduate she lived in the Turks and Caicos Islands for a semester researching invasive lionfish and marine ecosystems. The Marine Conservation Internship was the perfect introduction to REEF programs and the diving community. As the Communications and Affiliate Program Manager, Keri writes press releases, manages social media pages, recruits Field Stations, and leads community outreach and special events. Welcome to the REEF Team, Keri!

Support REEF and Your Donation Will Be Doubled

This summer, all donations made to REEF will be matched dollar for dollar by the Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation. If you have already taken advantage of this opportunity, thank you! If not, please consider doubling your investment in our ocean ecosystems and healthy reefs worldwide by donating online at www.REEF.org/contribute. REEF has been cited as one of the most effective conservation organizations working on ocean issues today. Our grass-roots efforts are made possible thanks in large part to our supporting members. Now is a great time to help ensure our continued success.

Reflecting on these last two decades, we are proud of the role REEF’s programs have played in ocean conservation. We have dedicated ourselves to making the Volunteer Fish Survey Project a successful citizen science program. For the past twenty years, thousands of REEF surveyors have volunteered their time so that scientists and policymakers have access to quality data to make informed decisions and further our understanding of the marine environment. Rest assured that your donation to REEF is an investment that will have a lasting impact on the health of our oceans.

In addition to donating securely online, you can also mail your check to REEF, PO Box 246, Key Largo, FL 33037, or call us at 305-852-0030. As a US 501(c)(3) charity, all donations are fully tax-deductable. And please remember to check with your employer to see if they offer a matching donation plan! Many companies do and it's an easy way to maximize the impact of your gift.

REEF Trips are Filling Up

Have you booked your 2014 REEF Trip yet? If not, confirm your space now before it's too late! Many trips are sold out, or close to it.

Dates, destinations, and trip leader information is below. Prices and complete details can be found online at www.REEF.org/trips. To find out more about any of these trips or to book your space, contact our travel consultants at Caradonna at 1-877-295-7333 (REEF), REEF@caradonna.com, or our staff at REEF HQ at 305-852-0030, trips@REEF.org (see trip description for booking information).

Dates and Destinations for 2014 REEF Trips --

February 22 - March 1, 2014 -- Dominica, Dive Dominica and Castle Comfort -- Led by Ned and Anna DeLoach, REEF Founders and World Renowned Marine Life Authors, Photographers, and Naturalists *SOLD OUT*

April 26 - May 3, 2014 -- Turneffe Atoll, Belize, Blackbird Caye Resort -- Led by Jonathan Lavan, REEF Fishinar Instructor and Fish Expert *2 Spaces Left*

May 31 - June 7, 2014 -- Northern Bahamas, Lionfish Control Study, Aqua Cat Live-aboard -- Led by Lad Akins, REEF Director of Special Projects, and Peter Hughes, REEF Board of Trustee *3 Spaces Left*

June 21 - 28, 2014 -- Bay Islands, Honduras, MV Caribbean Pearl II -- Led by Christy Pattengill-Semmens, Ph.D., REEF Director of Science, and Brice Semmens, Ph.D., REEF Fish Expert *3 Spaces Left*

July 19 - 26, 2014 -- Key Largo, Florida, REEF Discovery Tour, Horizon Divers and Marina del Mar Hotel -- Led by Paul Humann, REEF Founder and Renowned Marine Life Author and Photographer *7 Spaces Left*

August 16 - 23, 2014 -- Curacao, Lionfish Control Study, GO WEST Diving and Kura Hulanda Lodge -- Led by Lad Akins, REEF Director of Special Projects, and Peter Hughes, REEF Board of Trustee *5 Spaces Left*

September 14 - 18, 2014 -- Hornby Island, British Columbia, Hornby Island Diving -- Led by Janna Nichols, REEF Outreach Coordinator *6 Spaces Left*

November 8 - 15, 2014 -- Cayman Brac, Cayman Islands, Cayman Brac Beach Resort -- Led by Heather George, REEF Fish Expert *6 Spaces Left*

December 6 - 13, 2014 -- Nevis, Eastern Caribbean, Oualie Beach Resort -- Led by Led by Christy Pattengill-Semmens, Ph.D., REEF Director of Science, and Brice Semmens, Ph.D., REEF Fish Expert  *4 Spaces Left*

December 6 - 13, 2014 -- Cozumel, Aqua Safari and Casa Mexicana -- Led by Tracey Griffin, REEF Fish Expert and Cozumel Naturalist *SOLD OUT*

Double Your Donation to Support Marine Conservation

Earlier this month, for World Oceans Day, the Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation and the Henry Foundation celebrated by pledging to match contributions to REEF this summer dollar for dollar, up to $45,000! Our campaign to raise funds for controlling invasive Lionfish, inspiring citizen science through the Volunteer Fish Survey Project, and protecting Nassau Grouper is off to a great start. But we still need your help to reach our goal in the next 40 days. If you haven't yet had a chance, please contribute today. You can double your donation by contributing securely online at https://www.REEF.org/contribute. You can also mail your donation to PO Box 370246, Key Largo, FL 33037, or call our staff at REEF headquarters (305-852-0030) and donate over the phone.

Your donation will ensure that REEF can continue to provide high quality data to researchers and policymakers around the world. As new protections are being implemented for fisheries, it is important to answer the question “Is it working?” With REEF data, submitted by citizen scientists, we can start to find out. Contributions from members like you fuel the success of our programs. And with a chance to double your donation, no gift is too small. We are off to a great start, but still need your help to reach our goal. With your generosity, REEF can continue to provide scientists and researchers with invaluable tools to make informed marine conservation decisions. Please take a moment to make your donation count twice! 

Live From the Field Web Chats With the Grouper Moon Project

Live-feed webcast of Dr. Brice Semmens on the Little Cayman Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation. This year's broadcast is set for February 6th at 11:45am EST. Photo by Josh Stewart.
Grouper Education Program activities include scientific drawing, food web explorations, and more.
Grouper Moon educator, Todd Bohannon, teaching students at Little Cayman Primary School about components of the coral reef food web.

Scientists and volunteers from REEF, and our parters at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, are gearing up for the annual Grouper Moon Project. Scientists will be on the ground and in the water this coming Tuesday for the full moon. Since 2002, the group has conducted ground-breaking research to study the Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations, to help ensure that populations of this iconic species recover. In 2011, with funding from Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, REEF launched an education program to engage Caymanian students in the Grouper Moon Project. This exciting project brings the Nassau Grouper into elementary and high school classrooms through lesson plans and live-feed videos that connect classrooms with scientists in the field.

Three live-feed webcasts are planned over the next two weeks. While the students will be communicating directly with the Grouper Moon scientists, anyone can watch the feeds live or archived. The live-feed schedule is:

- Friday February 6th, from underwater at the Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation

- Monday February 9th, from the Grouper Moon base of operations on Little Cayman, featuring scientists explaining the research objectives, day-to-day activities, and research equipment used during the project.

- Wednesday February 11th, from underwater on the famous Blood Bay Wall.

All webcasts are planned to start at 11:45am EST and will last about 45 minutes. The live feeds stream through YouTube on TheGrouperTeacherREEF channel. The first live feed, on February 6th, will be here. We will post URLs for the other feeds on REEF's Facebook page. The webcasts are archived online here.

Now in its fourth year, the Grouper Education Program presents students with a multi-faceted view of Nassau Grouper, in which students create their own understanding of this important species. Key curricular concepts include: the historical role of Nassau Grouper in the Caribbean, its role as a top predator and its positive impact on local reef health, and the conservation challenges facing the species. It is expected that fifteen classrooms at ten schools will participate in the program this year.

The work of the Grouper Moon research project – a collaboration between REEF and the Cayman Island Department of Environment has led to fishing restrictions at the aggregation sites and an increase in numbers of the endangered fish. To find out more, visit www.REEF.org/groupermoonproject. The Grouper Education Program is supported by a grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. In-kind logistics and technical support is provided by Southern Cross Club, Little Cayman Beach Resort and Reef DiversCayman Airways, and LIME.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub