Putting it to Work: New Publication Updating Fishes of Alligator Reef in the Florida Keys

Tessellated Blenny, Hypsoblennius invemar, one of the 41 species added to the species inventory of Alligator Reef as part of the publication. Photo by Carlos Estapé.
Allison Estapé, one of the paper's co-authors surveying in the Florida Keys. Photo by Carlos Estapé.
Spotfin Jawfish, Opistognathus robins, one of the 41 species added to the species inventory of Alligator Reef as part of the publication. Photo by Carlos Estapé.
Carlos and Allison Estapé, active REEF volunteers and co-authors on a new paper on the Fishes of Alligator Reef.

We are excited to share a new publication recently co-authored by active REEF volunteers, Carlos and Allison Estapé. Carlos and Allison are members of REEF's Advanced Assessment Team and were honored as REEF's Volunteers of the Year in 2013. In that same year, Carlos and Allison became aware of an extensive historical study that had been conducted documenting the fishes of Alligator Reef, which happened to be their "home" reef. From 1958-67, Walter A. Starck II conducted marine biological studies and fish collection efforts in the area of Alligator Reef, off of Islamorada in the Florida Keys. In 1968, he published A List of Fishes of Alligator Reef.

After reading Stark's study, Carlos and Allison undertook a four-year census of the fishes of the area with a goal to photo-document as many of their sightings as possible. This effort subsequently entailed 1,039 combined dives devoted to fish counts, photographic documentation, or both. During these surveys, they photographed 278 of the species reported by Starck (1968) plus 35 additional and/or newly described or reclassified species not recorded in the earlier study. During this time, Carlos and Allison started working with Dr. Stark to update the classic publication. The updated paper was published in Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation in August 2017.

An update of the checklist of fishes of Alligator Reef and environs some fifty years later provides an unparalleled opportunity to evaluate the species richness for a limited reef area, as well as a unique opportunity to explore changes in diversity over a half-century time scale. In the updated study, the authors added 107 species and subtracted 5 from the original total of 516 species: thus the checklist now totals 618 species, of 122 families, the most recorded for any similarly sized area in the New World. The additional species records are made up from a number of subsequent collections as well as from Carlos and Allison's sightings. Over the half-century since the original Alligator Reef survey, there have been great advances in the taxonomy of Greater Caribbean reef fishes, with numerous changes in scientific names and classification. These changes were addressed in the updated publication so as to bring the list to current status.

The authors used the REEF database for analysis and comparison including three photos from Ed Martin, also a REEF member. REEF maintains an online database of worldwide visual fish-count surveys conducted by volunteer researchers and fish-count enthusiasts. While such surveys can be biased towards easily observed species, they are indicative for a large portion of the reef fish fauna and comprise a valuable source of comparative information (Schmitt & Sullivan 1996, Pattengill-Semmens & Semmens 2003, Holt et al. 2013). The local REEF data includes that of the Estapés, who have conducted 185 roving-diver REEF surveys on Alligator Reef. An additional 1,807 surveys at 94 sites in the study area have also been conducted by other REEF volunteers (as of July, 3, 2016).

To view a link to the Stark and Estapé paper, as well as all other publications that have included REEF data and projects, visit www.REEF.org/db/publications.

Putting It To Work: New Study Looks at Spawning Aggregation Population Genetics

The largest known spawning aggregation of Nassau Grouper in the Caribbean, found in the Cayman Islands, is the focus of REEF's Grouper Moon Project. Photo by Jim Hellemn.

A new publication in the scientific journal, Coral Reefs, evaluates population genetics of spawning aggregations and the role of juvenile recruitment, from both local and external sources, in sustaining and increasing local aggregations. The study included information from REEF's Grouper Moon Project in the Cayman Islands.

Like many places throughout the Caribbean, Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations in the US Virgin Islands were overfished until their disappearance in the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 2000s, however, Nassau Grouper were found gathering at Grammanik Bank, USVI, a mesophotic coral reef adjacent to one of the extinct aggregation sites, and regulatory protective measures were implemented to protect this fledgling aggregation. The authors of this study addressed two objectives: 1) which factors (local vs. external recruitment) are important in shaping recovery of the USVI spawning aggregations, and 2) the impact of severe past overfishing on the genetic structure of the Gremmanik Bank aggregation. For this second objective, REEF Grouper Moon Project scientists provided genetic samples from individual Nassau Grouper taken from the Little Cayman spawning aggregation, a much larger and less impacted aggregation.

No population structure was detected between the USVI and Cayman spawning aggregations. Additionally, the USVI spawning population showed signs of a genetic bottleneck, typical of greatly reduced populations. These collective results suggest that external recruitment is an important driver of the USVI spawning aggregation recovery. These findings also provide a baseline for future genetic monitoring of the spawning aggregations. The paper, titled "The ups and downs of coral reef fishes: the genetic characteristics of a formerly severely overfished but currently recovering Nassau grouper fish spawning aggregation", was published earlier this month in the March 2016 issue of Coral Reefs. Grouper Moon scientist, Dr. Brice Semmens, was a co-author on the paper. To find out more about this study and to see a list of all publications that have included REEF projects, visit www.REEF.org/db/publications.

Intern Spotlight: Meet Our Fall 2016 Interns

Our Fall 2016 Marine Conservation Interns!

This month, we are excited to introduce you to our Fall 2016 interns, who are a part of our Marine Conservation Internship Program. Since 1994, REEF has hosted over 110 interns. Our internship program has expanded over the years and our interns serve an important role in the day-to-day management at REEF. The internship provides an array of diverse experiences including scientific diving, outreach and education, data collection and management, non-profit operations, and public speaking.

A big welcome to our new Fall 2016 interns:

Emily Volkmann (from Grafton, Wisconsin), recent graduate from Smith College, BA in Biology and Environmental Science and Policy

Ellie Place (from Bellevue, Washington), recent graduate from Brown University, BA in Geological Sciences and Hispanic Studies

Katherine Ilcken (from Tampa, Florida), recent graduate from University of Florida, BS Wildlife Ecology and Conservation

Thomas Hyduk (from Central New Jersey), recent graduate from University of Miami, BS in Marine and Atmospheric Science

For more information about our interns, please visit www.REEF.org/internship/interns.

Putting It To Work: New Publication Out of the Grouper Moon Project

Results from the study authored by J Egerton et al shows the visualization provided by the hydroacoustic technology used to evaluate size and location of the Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation off Little Cayman. Figure (c) Coral Reefs, 2017.
A team of REEF scientists and volunteers have visually monitored the Little Cayman spawning aggregation annually since 2002. Photo by Phil Bush.

A new publication in the scientific journal Coral Reefs was recently issued based on science conducted as part of REEF's Grouper Moon Project. The paper, titled "Hydroacoustics for the discovery and quantification of Nassau grouper (Epinephelus stratus) spawning aggregations", summarizes results from work conducted during the 2014 Grouper Moon Project field season in the Cayman Islands. Led by Jack Egerton from Bangor University in the UK, the research focused on the use of hydroacoustic technology as a means to monitor the status and ecology of fish spawning aggregations. Egerton was assisted by Grouper Moon scientists, Dr. Brice Semmens and Dr. Scott Heppell, as well as Grouper Moon collaborators from the Cayman Islands Department of Environment. Using a split-beam echo sounder, data were used to visualize and estimate fish abundance and biomass at three Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations in the Cayman Islands. The estimates were compared with diver-collected data. Additionally, the technology was used to examine fish aggregation locations in relation to protected zones.

Patterns in the acoustic abundance matched that observed by the visual estimates reported by our Grouper Moon diver teams - total numbers found at the Little Cayman aggregation were significanly higher than the depeleted aggregations found on Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac. 

Spawning aggregation location examined with reference to seasonal marine protected areas (Designated Grouper Spawning Areas) showed that the aggregations were partially outside these areas at Grand Cayman and very close to the boundary at Cayman Brac. The aggregation on Little Cayman appears to be contained within the protected zone (at least in 2014). However, we know from other Grouper Moon Project data that the fish spend a lot of time traveling in and out of the zone during the day. Additionally, in 2015, the aggregation on Little Cayman shifted a significant distance to the north of the historical location and partially out of the protected zone. The results of this study show the importance of making use of many different approaches for monitoring and aggregations in order to most effectively inform future management of aggregating fish species.

To read more about this study and others that have been published based on REEF's programs, visit www.REEF.org/db/publications. To learn more about the Grouper Moon Project, visit www.REEF.org/groupermoonproject.

The Faces of REEF: Greg Jensen

Greg in his element underwater. Photo by Janna Nichols.
A fish lover at heart.
Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker. Photo by Greg Jensen.

REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. Over 60,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.

This month we highlight Greg Jensen, member since 2009. Greg has conducted 230 surveys (almost all in the chilly waters of the Pacific Northwest where he lives with his wife Pam, also an active REEF member). Greg is a faculty member at the University of Washington and the author of "Crabs and Shrimps of the Pacific Coast". He is a Level 5 Expert surveyor in the PAC region and has participated in several of the Advanced Assessment Team projects in Washington. Here's what Greg 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? I first learned about REEF when I was approached by Janna Nichols to help on some dive surveys for a non-REEF project to count invertebrates in the Pacific Northwest. There wasn’t a species list, and we were trying to identify everything- which turned out to be impossible, given the density of organisms and problems with species identification for groups like sponges and bryozoans.

In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of REEF’s projects and programs? As a scientist who has always been interested in biodiversity I have kind of a built-in affinity for documenting what I see, and REEF gives me yet another excuse to dive. What I like (besides seeing the database grow) is that it gets more non-scientists engaged and interested in underwater life. Divers who once thought a site was only good if it had wolf eels or octopus are now getting excited over obscure little sculpins, and that’s pretty cool.

Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there? If you don’t dive nearby, where do you most often dive? Where is your favorite place to dive and why? I’m fortunate to live near Puget Sound, in an area where I’m surrounded by water. There are a dozen or more great sites an hour or less from my door, ranging from current-swept rocky channels where one can only dive during small tidal exchanges, to quiet bays that can be done anytime. With such a variety of habitats there is the opportunity to see a great diversity of species.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate? Why is it your favorite? Can’t really decide if my favorite fish is a spiny lumpsucker or a grunt sculpin. Both are small, unbearably cute fish with great personalities.

Do you have any surveying, fishwatching, or identification tips for REEF members? Stock up on identification guides. All books have their strengths and weaknesses, and having several different references at hand will give you different views, color variations, and tips for separating similar species. Check out REEF’s online “Fishinars” for handy tips to separate similar-looking species, and these often include characteristics that may not be in any of the guide books. I’ve given Fishinars for west coast crabs and sculpins, and put together an e-book to simplify identification of Pacific Northwest sculpins, a group that many divers find particularly difficult (free pdf download at www.molamarine.com).

Fish sightings

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Thanks for some REEF HQ Assistance

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Dog Snapper Eating Trumpetfish, See REEF Forum for more, Photo by Jessica Morris
Red-tipped Sea Goddess, by Jessica Morris
Octopus Eye, by Jessica Morris

As you can imagine, on any given day there is a lot that needs to get done at REEF HQ to keep all of our programs running. I want to take a moment to thank Jessica Morris for helping us out during October with miscellaneous,yet crucial tasks in the office.  Jessica is a local SCUBA instructor and is eager to help REEF and learn what we're all about.  She has already achieved her level 3 experience level and is ready to start surveying when she's not instructing. If any of our REEF members are down in the Key Largo area and in need of a SCUBA instructor or just want to dive with someone who is knowledgable about fish ID, you can reach Jessica at jessm82@hotmail.com.  She is also a budding photographer and took the pics of the Dog snapper eating the trumpetfish that is posted on our online forum page at http://www.reef.org/forum.  In the future, REEF hopes to provide opportunities for our members to assist us on various projects from their homes.  But for now, if you're in the area and want to help out, just let us know and/or stop into REEF HQ for a visit.  Meanwhile, we'll look for more surveys and great pics from Jessica this winter.

REEF Volunteers Honored for Their Service to the Florida Keys Community

CFFK Awards Luncheon.jpg
CFFK President Dianna Sutton, Audrey and Ken Smith and Leda Cunningham honor the Smiths' contributions to REEF and the Florida Keys community.

On Friday, February 1, the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys honored REEF HQ volunteers Audrey and Ken Smith at the 2008 Volunteer of the Year/Unsung Heroes Awards Luncheon in Key West, Florida. Ken and Audrey have been the backbone of REEF HQ in Key Largo for ten years. Their quiet, constant and cheerful help with the unglamorous tasks of building maintenance, data management and administrative work has consistently supported REEF in its mission to actively engage divers and snorkelers in marine conservation. The Ken (“Smitty”) and Audrey team focus on outdoor upkeep and office assistance respectively, contributing their sense of humor and selfless giving to the REEF family and making REEF HQ an inspiring place to work. REEF is grateful and honored to have the Smiths working at REEF HQ. If your travels bring you to the Keys, please drop by and say hi to these important members of the REEF team.

Two REEFers Survey the Galapagos Islands

Whale Shark encounter
True poetry in motion, squadron of Spotted Eagle Rays

My dive partner and I, both celebrating significant birthdays this year, decided to give ourselves the best gift of all, a dive trip to the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos Marine Reserve, one of the world's largest, covers approximately 138,000 square kilometers (53,282 square miles). On May 8, 2008, supplied with Paul Humann's Galapagos Fish Identification book and REEF fish survey forms, we set off aboard the Aggressor II for an eleven-day adventure. Our itinerary included diving seven islands (among them Wolf and Darwin), as well as four land excursions, one of them a visit to the famed Darwin Research Station.  Fifty-three surveys later, we had identified well over a hundred species, will have to wait for the data report to know just how many species we surveyed. We were lucky enough to see four whale sharks, and an Ocean sunfish.  Appearing almost daily were schools of Hammerhead sharks, as well as Galapagos, White-tip, Silky and Reef sharks. Green turtles, three to four feet in diameter often accompanied us and allowed the divers to swim alongside them. In addition, Manta Rays, Spotted Eagle Rays, Mobula, Devil and Golden Cowrays, would suddenly appear from the deep blue below us. We had to be careful when holding onto the rocks in the strong currents not to grab onto one of the well-camouflaged Stone Scorpionfish. A special 110-feet deep dive was made to a cave to find three Red Lipped Batfish, thought to be endemic to the area. Schools of Bottlenose dolphins followed our boat and dove with us often, as did the playful Fur Sealions which would pull on the fins, swim circles around us and come right up to our masks to say “hello!” Flightless cormorants, penguins or marine iguanas would occasionally startle us when least expected under water. We were surprised by the abundances and larger sizes of several fish species. At times, it seemed like we were behind a moving curtain of fish.

Since both of us were fairly new to Pacific diving, we were thrilled even to watch commonly seen fish, such as King Angelfish, Leather Bass, Moorish Idols, Giant Damselfish, Barberfish, Burrito Grunts and the most common of all, the ubiquitous Pacific Creole Fish. The parrotfish and wrasses were also a treat to see; Blue-chins and Bicolor Parrotfish were common and the Harlequin Wrasses, with their distinctive bump on the forehead, seemed to compete for the award in the most original in “pattern and color” combination category. Even though Galapagos diving is best suited for large fish observation, it is also home to many smaller species, among them the endemic Galapagos Triplefin Blennies, Marbled Gobies and Galapagos Pike Blennies, as well as Blue-banded Gobies, Bravo Clinids. Nooks and crannies in the rock walls hid colorful seahorses and even a frogfish. Yellowfin tuna, while not abundant, were seen on many dives and averaged about 3-4 feet long. Unfortunately, their size and market value encourage illegal fishing, since they fetch a high price on some Pacific Rim markets. The land and sea environment of Galapagos is unique, consisting of volcanic islands of varying sizes; consequently, the ocean floor is made up of lava boulders with very little coral. Black coral (golden green in color) was found on some sites. Near shore, most islands had a good amount of green algae, a good source of food for the marine iguanas and green turtles. Galapagos diving is truly unique; its strong, converging currents bring abundant and rich nutrients, providing a perfect environment for the pelagics. We urge you to go see this wonder for yourselves!  The Galapagos Islands are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Located approximately 1,000 kilometres off the Ecuadorian coast, within the confluence of three ocean currents, most of the marine and terrestrial fauna is truly unique. Recent efforts at education and outreach to the Ecuadorian community are in direct response to increased illegal poaching within the Marine Reserve that has included shark finning, increased squatting from migrants from the mainland, and an increase in non-indigenous species. such as goats.   A recent response from the Ecuadorian Government has enacted a Special Law for protection of the Galapagos Islands.  This Special Law provides stricter control over immigration, a quarantine system for combating invasive species, extending the boundary of protection around the islands, limiting property rights and economic activity, and increased national funding for conservation and enforcement - all of which are needed to maintain this unique biosphere for our collective future.  Photo credits for this article -  Dusan Richtarik and Barbara Anderson

REEF Fish Academy

Participants of the first ever REEF Fish Academy.

Where people get fish smarts! Over the weekend of October 12, six REEF Level 1 & 2 surveyors got a chance to become Level 3 Advanced surveyors and increase our fish smarts with Paul Humann, Ned and Anna DeLoach and Lad Akins. I personally became a REEF customer for this event and participated in the classroom, the fun, hanging out with Paul, Ned and Anna at the cookout, diving with Lad as he found new (for us) exciting additions to our life list and took the 100 Fish - Level 3 test (good thing I passed).

As part of the event, the first of its kind, we invited surveyors who had submitted 25 or more surveys but were still rated Introductory/Novice. Linda Crouse, Kelly Drinnen, Lureen Ferretti, Karen Hausheer and Dawn Vigo were the very fist participants in REEF Fish Academy. The weekend included classroom sessions, survey dives, and evening socials. Anna DeLoach shared REEF’s vision for this new training program with our participants, “We are looking to provide our enthusiastic REEF members with a way to share their passion and knowledge for Fish Watching. REEF Fish Academy is designed to tap into this enthusiasm and provide our members a way to become mentors for others, spreading the word about fish watching and surveying. REEF Fish Academy graduates are ready share the fun and excitement of fish ID and show people what fish surveying and contributing to REEF’s database is all about - making dives that count”.

The diving and a cookout were provided by Horizon Divers, one of REEF’s valued partners here in the local community. We had two great days of diving and over 80 species of fish sighted during the intensively fish orientated weekend. We are already planning for our next REEF Fish Academy, so keep an eye out for your invitation – coming soon.

Congratulation to Lureen Ferretti – who even passed her Level 4 Fish Test during the weekend and is now an Expert Surveyor. Special thanks to the participants for their support, coming to Key Largo to dive with us, their enthusiasm and all the great feedback and suggestions. It was a fantastic weekend.  Click here to find out more about REEF's Experience Levels.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub