Was That a Sea Snake?


I was conducting a snorkel survey at Kahekili Reef on West Maui when an unknown critter came slithering across the coral. My camera was clipped to a utility belt and it took me a few seconds to swing it up to my face. I've learned I may have only one chance to capture a photo, so I took a quick photo from the surface before free-diving down to get a closer look. I was only halfway down, at about 15 feet, when the critter dove head-first into the sand and quickly disappeared. Two photos -- from the surface, and a tail shot -- are the only evidence I have. My heart was pounding because it looked like a sea snake, but only the Yellow Bellied Sea Snake is rarely seen in the coastal waters of the main Hawaiian Islands. Upon close inspection later, the photos confirmed that it was not a sea snake -- the tail shot confirms a pointy ending, not a paddle-like tail that a sea snake would have. After some searching through FishBase and Keoki & Yuko Stender's Marine Life Photography websites, I was able to confirm that my mystery was the Saddled Snake Eel (Leiuranus semicinctus). It's not surprising that this incredible sighting happened at Kahekili Reef. It is the number one most species rich site in the REEF database for Hawaii (http://www.REEF.org/db/stats). Kahekili Reef (also sometimes known as Airport Beach) is an amazing low-profile reef in front of a West Maui development that we are trying to save by letting the fish and urchins "naturally" graze down the algae, and is now a Marine Protected Area.

REEF Member 50,000

In July 1993, REEF had the first Field Survey trip in Key Largo and welcomed our first members. Yesterday, on June 29, 2012, we were excited to welcome REEF Member #50,000. REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. The REEF staff and Board of Directors extend a big thank you to all of our members for making the last nineteen years a success.

Thank You To Our Winter Fundraiser Donors

Last chance to get your 2012 limited edition print. Donate $250 or more before the end of the month.

On behalf of the REEF Staff and Trustees, I want to thank all the donors from our Winter Fundraising campaign who helped us reach our target goal. With your help, we can continue REEF's core conservation programs, such as fighting the Lionfish invasion in the Caribbean, protecting Grouper spawning aggregations, collecting data through our Volunteer Fish Survey Project, and providing free online "Fishinars" to the general public and fish experts worldwide.

If you haven't given already, there are a few days left in our campaign to receive my limited, signed print of a Grouper Moon aggregation for contributions of $250 and over. In addition to donating online, you can also call REEF Headquarters at 305-852-0030, or mail in your donation to REEF, PO Box 246, Key Largo, FL 33037. Thank you again for your support!

Offline Data Entry Program - The Next Generation of REEF Survey Technology

Earlier this summer, we proudly released the next generation of REEF survey technology, the REEF Data Entry Program. When surveying began in 1993, divers and snorkelers wrote out each sighted fish species on a slate and submitted the surveys to the database using paper scantron forms. In 1994, we developed pre-printed underwater survey paper to make surveying easier, and in 2005 we said goodbye to bubble-filling and premiered online data entry using the Internet. The time had come to innovate yet again.

With our members in mind, we looked to develop a data entry tool that would meet the varied needs of our surveyors, including those who are traveling or live in areas with limited Internet access. The REEF Survey Data Entry Program allows our volunteers to enter REEF surveys without an Internet connection. When they have access to the web, the entered surveys are uploaded to the REEF online entry portal. Users then logon to the portal, complete error checking, and submit the surveys to REEF. The program operates on both Mac and PC computers, and is available for all of REEF’s survey regions. Our Beta-testers and early users agree it’s a great program, and many of them prefer the offline data entry program over online data entry.

The program is free to download at: www.REEF.org/dataentryprogram. Give it a try next time you survey! We hope you enjoy the program as much as we do. Feel free to send feedback to data@REEF.org. REEF extends a huge thank you to programmer, Chris MacGregor, for his work on this project, as well as REEF members who encouraged us to pursue this option and made contributions to support its development.

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.

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! 

Putting It To Work: New Publication Evaluating Goliath Grouper

Goliath Grouper, a protected species. Photo by Carlos and Allison Estape.

Despite uncertainties surrounding the population status of the protected Atlantic Goliath Grouper’s, fishery managers in Florida are under pressure to end the harvest moratorium in place since 1990. A new study published this month in the scientific journal, Fisheries Research, sought to measure the proportion of anglers interested in reopening the Goliath Grouper fishery and to identify key reasons for this interest. The authors also estimated the amount that anglers would be willing to pay for a Goliath Grouper harvest tag (the right sold to an angler to harvest one Goliath Grouper). REEF data on Goliath Grouper were used to compare with the fishermen-perceived grouper population trends. REEF data have been cited as the best available index of abundance for Goliath Grouper in Florida (see Koenig et al., 2011, www.REEF.org/db/publications/9754). The study found that about half of Florida’s recreational anglers believe that the ban on fishing for Goliath Grouper should be lifted, with many anglers reporting that they feel "there are too many goliath grouper and that their populations need to be controlled." These anglers are willing to pay between $34 and $79 for the right to harvest one Goliath Grouper in Florida.

As fishery managers work to determine the future of Goliath Grouper in Florida and the rest of the southeast United States, this study's findings can help them better understand stakeholder intentions and better communicate to the public. Additionally, fishery managers can compare the amount of money recreational anglers are willing to pay to open the fishery to the amount of money other stakeholders, such as recreational divers who visit goliath grouper, are willing to pay to keep the fishery closed. The new paper is titled "Lifting the goliath grouper harvest ban: Angler perspectives and willingness to pay", and was published by Geoffrey Shideler, a scientist at Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science University of Miami, and colleagues from NOAA Fisheries. Visit www.REEF.org/db/publications to see this and all of the scientific publications that have included REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project data.

Remembering Joe Thomas

Joe Thomas at the helm of his boat.

On August 24, 2015, a beloved member of our Key Largo community unexpectedly passed away. Joe Thomas of Ocean Divers was a brilliant captain, a caring mentor, and a wonderful friend, known for his softspoken demeanor and sharp sense of humor. Joe loved to share his passion for the sea, whether it was through educating young divers or imparting his knowledge of the local dive sites and Key Largo history to the many who looked up to him. Joe was a member of the REEF family for more than 20 years. He selflessly dedicated his time to helping many generations of Marine Conservation Interns advance their diving skills by offering training and certifications for courses such as Nitrox, Advanced Open Water, and Rescue Diver. Joe also provided support for and participated in numerous REEF monitoring and research projects throughout the Florida Keys. He was a valued member of REEF's Advanced Assessment Team and made a significant contribution to citizen science by submitting more than 500 fish surveys. He will be greatly missed.

At the request of Joe's close friends throughout the Key Largo community, The Joe Thomas Memorial Fund has been created as a legacy to remember the ideals by which Joe lived and worked, and to support educating future generations of marine conservationists and divers to protect the ocean that Joe loved so much. Proceeds from the fund will be used to aid young people beginning careers in marine conservation and diving by providing intern scholarships and dive certifications. To contribute to the fund, click here to donate securely online. Be sure to type "Joe Thomas" in the comment section on the donation page. You can also make a donation over the phone by calling REEF at 305-852-0030, or by sending a check to REEF HQ, PO Box 370246, Key Largo, FL 33037.

A celebration of life will be held in Key Largo later this month. If you have a memory of Joe to share, please visit www.REEF.org/joethomas.

Connecting With Classrooms in the Grouper Moon Project

Elementary students in the Cayman Islands working on one of the REEF Grouper Education Program lessons.
Live video feed from 2013, connecting researchers diving at the aggregation site with classrooms. Photo by Joshua Stewart.
In collaboration with a team of engineers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography we are using a cutting-edge underwater microscope with plankton net attached to study the habitat around the spawn cloud. As water flows through, two high speed cameras within an underwater microscope capture images of zooplankton and eggs.

Scientists and volunteers from REEF, and our partners at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, are wrapping up two weeks of field work on Little Cayman for the Grouper Moon Project. Since 2002, the collaboration has conducted ground-breaking research on the Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations in the Cayman Islands, to help ensure that populations of this iconic species recover. Around winter full moons, Nassau Grouper leave their home reefs and aggregate in mass to spawn. January didn't turn out to be the big month for spawning, and therefore our team will return for the February full moon. Nevertheless, many of the fish (at least 1,000) showed up at the aggregation site and our team kept busy collecting ongoing monitoring data (counts, size of fish, and documenting behaviors), field testing cutting-edge tools such as an underwater microscope, and running the Grouper Education Program.

In 2011, with funding from Disney Conservation Fund, REEF launched the Grouper Education Program to engage Caymanian students in the Grouper Moon Project. This exciting effort brings the Nassau Grouper in to elementary and high school classrooms through lesson plans and live-feed videos that connect classrooms with scientists in the field. The curriculum presents a multi-faceted view of Nassau Grouper in which students create their own understanding of this important fish. Key curricular concepts include the historical role of the species as an artisanal fishery throughout the Caribbean region, the grouper’s value as a keystone predator and its impact on local reef health, its role in today’s tourism-based economy in the Cayman Islands, and the conservation challenges facing Nassau Grouper given steep declines in populations. 

In January, we conducted four live-feed webcasts - three topside chats with scientists and one from underwater at a coral reef site along Bloody Bay Wall. All webcasts are archived on YouTube on TheGrouperTeacherREEF channel online here. Over 200 students from 17 schools participated.

Several interesting video clips and stories from the field were posted on REEF's Facebook page.

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 Conservation Fund. In-kind logistics and technical support is provided by Peter Hillenbrand, Southern Cross Club, Little Cayman Beach Resort and Reef DiversCayman Airways, and FLOW Cayman.

“Finding Dory” and Promoting Responsible Pet Ownership

"Dory" is a Palette Surgeonfish. Photo by Efraim Stocher.

The highly-anticipated sequel to Disney and Pixar’s “Finding Nemo”, “Finding Dory” opened in theaters in June, and was recently announced to be the highest-grossing animated film of all time. The titular character, Dory, is a Palette Surgeonfish (Paracanthurus hepatic), who spends the film searching for her family. Native to the tropical waters of the Western Pacific Ocean (REEF’s Central Indo-Pacific and South Pacific regions), these bright blue, reef-dwelling, algae-eating fish are also referred to as Pacific Blue Tangs, Hippo Tangs, or Regal Tangs. In addition to the film’s endearing characters and entertainment value, the release of “Finding Dory” carries the potential for an increased demand for Palette Surgeonfish in home aquariums, as well as the message that marine fish should be released into the wild.

Marine biologists worry that the release of “Finding Dory” could cause an increased demand for Palette Surgeonfish, threatening wild populations as well as coral reef habitats. National Geographic estimates that following the release of “Finding Nemo” in 2003, the demand for Clown Anenomefish (Amphiprion percula) like Nemo, more than tripled. Anenomefish are able to be aquacultured, or bred in captivity. Until recently, Palette Surgeonfish had never successfully been captive-bred, however, researchers at the University of Florida Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory recently announced that for the first time they have successfully raised the Palette Surgeonfish in captivity. This conservation breakthrough means that aquarists may soon have a source for Palette Surgeonfish that does not rely on fish removed from the wild. REEF encourages pet owners to educate themselves about fish ownership before buying a marine fish, including specifics on living requirements such as tank size, and whether the fish was bred in captivity or caught in the wild.

In addition, pet owners should have a plan in place in case they are ever unable to care for their fish. In “Finding Dory”, we learn that Dory was born and raised in a facility on the California coast, but eventually ended up in the wild. Releasing non-native marine fish into the ocean from home aquariums, while well-intentioned, can create severe problems for marine ecosystems. One threat includes the spread of invasive species, like the Indo-Pacific Lionfish, which has caused dramatic impacts since their initial introduction in the 1980’s. Non-native fish may also carry diseases and parasites that can have harmful impacts on native fish species.

In 2015, REEF launched the “Don’t Release Me” campaign to educate pet owners about responsible pet ownership, teach the public about the effects of releasing non-native pet species into the wild, and work cooperatively with other organizations to promote alternatives to pet release and stop the spread of invasive species. To learn more about Don’t Release Me and responsible pet ownership, visit www.dontreleaseme.org.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub