The M/V Wellwood, a 122-meter freighter, ran aground in 1984 on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, Florida. The grounding destroyed 1,285 square meters of living corals. The grounding transformed the area into a flattened, barren pavement covered with coral rubble. Eighteen years after the grounding, the area resembled nearby hard ground habitat with little structure and the benthic community was dominated by gorgonians. Natural recovery to a state similar to the pre-grounding condition failed to occur within a reasonable time frame and therefore, habitat restoration was initiated in May 2002. In the Fall of 2007, REEF completed a five-year monitoring project on the fish assemblages at the Wellwood grounding site and two nearby reference areas. A Summary Report, which summarizes the results of the monitoring effort, has been completed and is available for download from the REEF Wellwood Monitoring webpage.
Baseline surveys were conducted just prior to and immediately following restoration, quarterly monitoring took place through Year 1 and semi-annual monitoring in Years 2 through 5. The primary goals of this project were to aid in the assessment of restoration efforts and provide a benchmark for long-term evaluation of the fish communities at the grounding site. Teams of REEF Advanced Assessment Team divers conducted 558 roving fish surveys and 559 belt transect surveys during the five year monitoring project.
After initial colonization, Restoration site fish assemblage diversity, density and biomass have leveled off and remain lower than that at nearby reference areas. A total of 165 fish species were recorded at the Restoration Site during the 5-year project. In comparison, 189 were documented at the North Reference site and 207 were documented at the South Reference Site. Parrotfish and surgeonfish appear to be responding quickest to the restoration efforts, with densities and biomass values similar to that of the reference sites. Grunt and snapper species are primarily absent from the Restoration Site. The relatively short duration of this study makes it difficult for results to be teased out from natural population variability. Similarly, definitive conclusions cannot be achieved from these data due to the limited amount of time that has passed since restoration and the well-known decadal processes that are required for coral reef development. However, these data will serve as a critical baseline for assessing future changes and the effect of any future restoration efforts at the site.
For more information about the 5-year project and to read the full report, visit the REEF Wellwood Monitoring webpage. There was also a longer story about the project in the January 2008 REEF-in-Brief.
Since 2001, REEF has led the Grouper Moon Project, a multi-faceted, collaborative research effort in the Cayman Islands aimed at better understanding Nassau grouper reproduction and the role that marine reserves can play in the long-term protection of this endangered species. The 2009 spawning season was the most ambitious to date for the project. For the first time, we had teams of researchers and volunteers stationed on each of the three Cayman Islands--Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman. The field season was certainly a success; among many interesting results and accomplishments, our most exciting find was that the teams on all three islands witnessed Nassau grouper spawning on the same night (Valentine’s Day, of all days! – which happened to be 5 nights after the full moon).
In 2003 the Cayman Island Marine Conservation Board instituted an 8-year fishing ban on Nassau grouper at all historically known aggregation sites in the Cayman Islands. 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 2009 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 Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman; aggregations on both of these islands were fished to exhaustion in the recent past. In addition to the island specific objectives, the Grouper Moon research program expanded satellite drifter work this season. These drifters, which track current patterns associated with the body of water the grouper eggs were spawned in, will continue to report positions for 45 days after spawning; this length of time is the approximate larval duration for Nassau grouper. REEF also continued education and outreach efforts through public talks about spawning aggregations and the Grouper Moon research. Talks were held at the Little Cayman National Trust and Dive Tech/Cobalt Coast Resort.
2009 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 Cayman Brac team’s goal was to document whether or not aggregating Nassau grouper were spawning-- evidence of spawning would refute the theory that Nassau grouper fail to recover once overfished because fish on small aggregations no longer release gametes. In the 2008 spawning season, the Grouper Moon research team discovered the location of an aggregation of Nassau grouper on Cayman Brac. This year, armed with this information, REEF and CIDOE researchers spent the full 2009 spawning season observing, videoing and documenting the Cayman Brac spawning aggregation. In addition, the team was able to accomplish the primary goal of this season’s work on the island—team members both observed and videoed spawning. Objectives for the Grand Cayman team were similar, except that they first had the task of discovering where Nassau grouper on that island go (if anywhere) during the spawning season. Using the acoutic tag pinger signal of just ONE Nassau grouper (of 6 total individuals tagged on Grand Cayman in 2008), divers confirmed the presence of aggregating grouper near the historic East End aggregation site and a dusk dive on February 14th yielded this season’s biggest accomplishment– team members witnessed Nassau grouper spawning on Grand Cayman!
The findings stemming from this work are unquestionably novel, and are certainly good news —protections on aggregation sites that have been fished to exhaustion will protect those few individuals that remain, and will protect stocks of fishes that are contributing to the next generation of this endangered reef fish. Put simply, our research demonstrates that overfished aggregations are down, but not out.
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, Chris Dixon, 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 2009 was no exception – heartfelt thanks to Judie Clee, Thor Dunmire, Tracey Griffin, Doug Harder, Brenda Hitt, Denise Mizell and Sheryl Shea. 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 students, Stephanie Kraft and Heather Reiff, 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 and Peter Hillenbrand, is also much appreciated. And finally, our ground-breaking achievements on Cayman Brac 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 Jules James.
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.
Planning is underway for REEF's annual research on Nassau grouper spawning aggregations in the Cayman Islands for the 2010 spawning season - the Grouper Moon Project. This collaborative conservation program between REEF and the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment is entering its 8th year. Thanks to funding from the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the research team is conducting innovative research that is critical to the long-term survival of this iconic Caribbean species. Grouper Moon scientists will be in the field January 30 - February 12, 2010. If you are looking for a winter getaway and are considering the Cayman Islands, this is a great time to visit Little Cayman.
While there are not opportunities for recreational divers to visit the aggregation, researchers will be giving several public talks and divers on Bloody Bay Wall will witness the mass migrations of the normally solitary Nassau grouper from their home reefs out to the aggregation site. Another good reason -- the acclaimed Southern Cross Club has offered to donate a percentage of any package booked by REEF members during that time to support REEF's Grouper Moon Project. To take a vacation and make a positive impact for the grouper, contact the Southern Cross Club reservation office directly at 1-800-899-2582 or info@SouthernCrossClub.com -- be sure to mention that you are a REEF member!
More information about the 2010 research and program objectives for the Grouper Moon Project will be included in future issues of REEF-in-Brief. you can also find out more about the Project on the Grouper Moon Project Webpage.
Congratulations to our newest Field Stations who have joined us since the start of 2010! These shops, charters, instructors and organizations can support REEF in many ways - offering classes, REEF survey opportunities, stocking survey supplies, etc. For more information and to check out who the other 173 REEF Field Stations are, go to the Field Station page on the REEF website.
REEF Field Surveys offer a great introduction to fish identification for novice fishwatchers, and are a fun way for experienced surveyors to build their life list while interacting with fellow fishwatchers. The recent trip to Key Largo was no exception. REEF surveyors gathered in late August at Amoray Dive Resort for the Key Largo Field Survey and Coral Conservation trip. The trip was scheduled around the annual coral spawning that usually occurs in the Keys after the full moon of August. Amy Slate, owner of Amoray, organized a great week of activities, including presentations by Lauri MacLaughlin, from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) and Ken Nedimyer, founder of the Coral Restoration Foundation. A 3-minute highlite video is posted on YouTube here.
Ned DeLoach kicked off the week with presentations about fish behavior and an overview of Key Largo’s more famous fish species. Key Largo is known for its grunts so we started the week with back-to-back dives on the Benwood, where fish watchers can regularly observe eight species of grunts on a dive. The second dive was timed with the daily arrival of the parrotfish that bed down for the night in the nooks and crannies of the wreck. Hundreds of Blue, Midnight and Rainbow parrotfish arrive around sunset and spend about 15 minutes swooping around before they settle in to sleep. For veteran fish counters, this is a bonanza because it is extremely rare to be able to mark Abundant (over 100) for Midnight parrotfish!
Lauri MacLaughlin has amassed an extensive collection of spawning coral video and uses it to educate the public about the plight of coral reefs but also showcases Sanctuary programs that give hope for their future. After her presentation, our group joined Lauri and her team on the projected night for spawning staghorn and elkhorn coral. They placed tents over selected corals to capture gametes for research while we spent several hours watching for signs of gamete bundle formation in the polyps. Unfortunately none of the research groups stationed all over the Keys observed any spawning that evening.
To continue with our coral conservation theme, Ken Nedimyer joined us to tell us his inspiring story about how he made the transition from live rock farmer for the aquarium industry to coral farmer. Ken and his family turned a few small coral recruits that settled on his live rock into over 5,000 growing coral colonies. His organization has now successfully transplanted corals on a number of reefs in the Florida Keys Sanctuary. After Ken’s talk we load up the boat for a visit to his coral nursery and some hands-on work. There is no better way to understand the scope of what he has accomplished than to see it for ourselves and contribute to the cause by helping with some of busy work scrubbing algae and cementing coral fragments to concrete bases. Fish surveys in the coral nursery are usually productive and this time included a tiny jackknife fish and an Emerald parrotfish.
The week included a visit to REEF headquarters where staff and volunteers, Jane Bixby, Karla Hightshoe and Nancy Perez treated us to refreshments and a tour. Field Operations Coordinator Alecia Adamson gave her very informative presentation about REEF’s programs dealing with the invasive lionfish in the Tropical Western Atlantic.
Other highlights of the week included a dive with a very inquisitive Goliath grouper and a rare chance to survey the grass beds and mangroves on the Florida Bay side of Key Largo, where we added Sea Bream, Inshore lizardfish, and Banner and Frillfin gobies to our list. We ended the week with two dives at Snapper Ledge; a site that has received a lot of attention in the past few years by groups who are petitioning to have the area designated a Sanctuary Preservation Area to protect the thousands of fish that gather there. It was a fishwatcher’s dream, a fitting way to end the week.
If all of this sounds fun, we hope you will join us on a future Field Survey. The 2011 trip schedule is now posted online here -- http://www.reef.org/fieldsurveys/schedule
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:
- Researchers from the Centro de Ecología Marina de Utila requested data on yellowtail snapper and other snapper and grouper species. The group is working to develop an ecosystem approach to managing Caribbean coral reefs in the face of climate change .
- Scientists from NOAA Fisheries are using sightings of the Indo-Pacific lionfish in REEF surveys to evaluate the rapid invasion of this species into the Florida Keys.
REEF Director of Science, Christy Pattengill-Semmens, and REEF Outreach Coordinator, Janna Nichols, attended a rockfish conference in Seattle earlier this week. The workshop, Rockfish Recovery in the Salish Sea: Research and Management Priorities, was organized by NOAA, WDFW, and the SeaDoc Society, and served as a venue for scientists, managers, and policy makers from throughout the region to share their work and help chart a course for future work. Christy presented an overview of REEF data collected throughout the Salish Sea, and showed distribution maps for 12 species of rockfish. The REEF Volunteer Survey Program expanded to the Northwest in 1998. To date, REEF volunteers have submitted 12,495 surveys from 781 sites throughout the Salish Sea. These data are a valuable information resource for those working to protect and restore declining rockfish populations. Several other active Pacific Northwest surveyors also attended the conference.
If you haven't had a chance to attend one of our Fishinars yet, you should! New sessions are continually being added, so check out the Webinar Training page (www.REEF.org/resources/webinars) to see the current schedule and to register for one or more sessions. These popular online training sessions (webinars) provide fishie fun in the comfort of your own home. Fishinars are open to divers, snorkelers, and devout landlubbers alike. Participation is free but you need to register for each session you want to attend. No special software is required, just a web browser. You don't need a microphone or a webcam to be able to participate. Great for first-timers or those wanting a review. Upcoming sessions include:
NORTHERN GULF OF MEXICO: DAPPER DOZEN Wednesday, February 1st at 5pm PST / 8pm EST
ROCKFISH ROCK Thursday, February 2nd at 6pm PST / 9pm EST
CARIBBEAN CRYPTICS Wednesday, February 15th at 6pm PST / 9pm EST
PACIFIC NW ADVANCED FISH ID Tuesday, February 21st at 7pm PST - Part 1; Wednesday, February 22nd at 7pm PST - Part 2; Thursday, February 23rd at 7pm PST - Part 3
NOT EXACTLY BUMS: FISH THAT LIVE UNDER FLORIDA'S BLUE HERON BRIDGE Wednesday, February 29th at 5pm PST / 8pm EST
PERPLEXING PARROTFISH Wednesday, March 14th at 5pm PST / 8pm EST
25 CARIBBEAN FISH YOU SHOULD KNOW Wednesday, March 28th at 5pm PST / 8pm EST
There is just one week left to Double Your Donation as part of our Summer Fundraising Campaign. We are so close to reaching our goal of raising $60,000 in 60 days! Please help us in this final stretch, every donation counts! You can contribute through our secure website at www.REEF.org/contribute, mail your donation to REEF at PO Box 246 - Key Largo, FL 33037, or call us at 305-852-0030. Double your donation and ensure REEF’s marine conservation programs can continue. Your donation supports programs such as our free Fishinars, Volunteer Fish Survey database management, Lionfish outreach, and Nassau Grouper conservation and education. Thank you to all of our members who have donated so far to our summer matching campaign, and thanks to the generosity of the Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation for matching your contributions!
Many of you know that REEF helps out sea-dwelling creatures, but you may not know that we also help prepare our future land-dwelling leaders to deal with issues facing our marine ecosystems. Meet the faces of our Marine Conservation Internship Program! Every four months, REEF invites hundreds of applicants to compete for four internship positions. The chosen interns implement community outreach and education programs focused on reef fish identification and lionfish handling and collection. Interns also dive and volunteer with partner organizations in the Florida Keys. Examples of some average daily intern activities include computer data entry, helping to write and layout newsletters and flyers, packaging orders, answering phone calls and e-mails, greeting visitors at REEF Headquarters, biological assessment fieldwork and data analysis, community education and outreach, writing, artwork, and GIS mapping.
For more information on this program or if you know someone who would like to apply, please visit the Internship Webpage or email General Manager, Martha Klitzkie, at Martha@reef.org. Applications for the Fall internship are due June 15th.