Another GREAT Annual Fish Count

The 21st annual Great Annual Fish Count (GAFC) took place in July, with many dive shops, dive clubs, and other groups organizing fish ID classes, dive /snorkel days, BBQs and more fun gatherings. The concept behind the GAFC is not only to accumulate large numbers of surveys during the month of July, but to introduce divers/snorkelers to fishwatching and get them started doing REEF surveys. Groups from California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maine, Hawaii, Florida, North Carolina, and new to the event in 2012 - New Brunswick, all participated! Once again, this year's largest one day event was held in the Northeast, coordinated by the New England Dive Club. Thank you to ALL participants, and we hope you'll continue conducting REEF surveys on your dives year round!

Putting It To Work: New Publication Showing Validity of REEF Survey Data

A REEF "Roving Diver" has free swimming range around a dive site. Surveyors are encouraged to search high and low for as many species as they can positively ID. Photo by Paul Humann.
Transect surveyors follow a path for a pre-determined length (typically around 25m) and record all species within a 1-3 meter swath. Photo courtesy of Ken Marks.

A new scientific paper published earlier this month in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution reports that REEF surveys conducted by citizen scientists compare well with traditional scientific methods when it comes to monitoring species biodiversity. The findings of the research, conducted by Dr. Ben Holt from University of East Angila in the UK, give weight to the growing phenomenon of citizen science programs such as REEF's Volunteer Survey Project. The field study compared methods used by REEF volunteer divers with those used by professional scientists to measure the variety of fish species in three Caribbean sites in the Turks and Caicos. The divers surveyed the sites using two methods – the 'belt transect', used in peer reviewed fish diversity studies, and the 'roving diver technique', used by REEF volunteers. Two teams of 12 divers made 144 separate underwater surveys across the sites over four weeks. While the traditional scientific survey revealed sightings of 106 different types of fish, the volunteer technique detected greater marine diversity with a total of 137 in the same waters. Dr Holt led the research in partnership with the Centre for Marine Resource Studies in the Caribbean and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He said: "The results of this study are important for the future of citizen science and the use of data collected by these programs. Very few, if any, scientific groups can collect data on the scale that volunteer groups can, so our proof that both methods return consistent results is very encouraging for citizen science in general. We're living in a world that's changing very significantly. Environmental changes are having a big impact on ecosystems around us so we need to harness new ways of measuring the effect. Our study demonstrates the quality of data collected using a volunteer method can match, and in some respects exceed, protocols used by professional scientists." Click here to read the full paper, entitled "Comparing Diversity Data Collected Using a Protocol Designed for Volunteers with Results from a Professional Alternative".

The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Nick Brown

Nick snapping a quick photo during a REEF Advanced Assessment Team trip in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Photo by Pete Naylor.
Nick Brown (center) diving with Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders (l) and Joe Gaydos from SeaDoc Society (r) off Orcas Island, WA.
Nick with his faithful dog, Neri, in St. Kitts.

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 Nick Brown. A US Pacific Northwest native, Nick is currently living in St. Kitts. Nick has been a REEF member since 2004 and has since conducted 138 surveys. He is a member of the PAC Advanced Assessment Team. Here's what Nick had to say about REEF:

How did you first volunteer with REEF?

I first became involved with REEF in 2004 while working as a research intern for the SeaDoc Society, a marine ecosystem health program based in Washington State. The SeaDoc Society and REEF frequently collaborate to offer free fish and invertebrate identification courses to the public. Although I was still completing my open water certification at the time, the enthusiasm of SeaDoc’s chief scientist Joe Gaydos and REEF’s Janna Nichols was contagious. Within a month of finishing my certification, I completed my first REEF survey and haven’t stopped since.

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys?

I take great satisfaction in knowing that every survey I submit contributes to an ever growing database that can be used by the public, researchers and policy makers around the world. Not only am I adding more purpose to my dives by contributing to something useful, I’m able to reference my submitted data later on which functions as my own personal invertebrate (in the PAC region) and fish sighting logbook.

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

I’ve been very fortunate in being able to dive very close to where I live. Until about a year and a half ago, the vast majority of my dives were in the cold but beautiful waters of my home state of Washington and nearby British Columbia, an area known locally as the Salish Sea. My favorite part about diving in the Pacific Northwest is the large diversity of marine invertebrates. Recently though, I’ve hung up my drysuit and slipped into a wetsuit for the warm Caribbean waters of St. Kitts and Nevis where I’m currently attending veterinary school. My favorite part of Caribbean diving is the great visibility and large variety of ornately colored fish.

Do you have any surveying, fishwatching, or identification tips for REEF members?

For better surveying and fish watching move slowly; not only will your dive last longer, but you’ll notice more and the marine life tends not to be as shy. For identification, I recommend investing in a few fish and invertebrate ID books; often the subtleties between different species are hard to appreciate without a detailed reference.

A Few Spaces Remain on 2014 REEF Trips

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. 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.

June 21 - 28, 2014 -- Bay Islands, Honduras, MV Caribbean Pearl II -- Diving around Utila, Roatan, and the banks in between, from a beautiful liveaboard. This special trip is led by two marine biologists, and we hear that whale sharks could be seen!  *2 Spaces Left (one male share and one female share)*

July 19 - 26, 2014 -- Key Largo, Florida, REEF Discovery Tour -- A special trip aimed at beginner surveyors (but everyone is welcome), and led by Paul Humann, REEF Founder and Renowned Marine Life Author and Photographer. This is your chance to dive with the man who brought us the definitive Caribbean fish ID guide. *3 Spaces Left*

August 16 - 23, 2014 -- Curacao, Lionfish Control Study -- Join Lad Akins and Peter Hughes for the second annual trip to Curacao to study the impacts of the invasive lionfish. Participants will have an oportunity to assist with the research. *2 Spaces Left*

September 14 - 18, 2014 -- Hornby Island, British Columbia -- Dive in the ledgendary Pacific Northwest waters, and learn your fish (and invertebrates) with REEF's own Janna Nichols. *6 Spaces Left*

November 8 - 15, 2014 -- Cayman Brac, Cayman Islands -- A wonderful island full of Caribbean charm, Cayman Brac features spectacular walls and reefs that you expect from the Cayman Islands.  *6 Spaces Left*

December 6 - 13, 2014 -- Nevis, Eastern Caribbean -- This little gem next to St. Kitts is easy to get to, but certainly off the tourist track. With great diving and many fun fish finds to be had, this is sure to be a great trip. *4 Spaces Left*

Putting It To Work: New Publication from the Grouper Moon Project

Approximately 5,000 Nassau Grouper gather, temporarily, on the west end of Little Cayman each winter. Photo by Paul Humann.

A new scientific paper that features research from REEF's Grouper Moon Project, "Hot Moments in Spawning Aggregations", was recently published in the journal, Coral Reefs. The study looked at the impact of a Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation in creating biogeochemical "hot moments", which occur when a temporary increase in one or more limiting nutrients results in elevated rates of biogeochemical reactions. In this case, the limited nutrients are nitrogen and phosphorus. And the temporary increase is from the large amount of grouper excrement that results when approximately 5,000 Nassau Grouper gather in a small area for 10 days during the spawning season, as happens around winter full moons on Little Cayman. The authors estimated the rate of nutrients supplied by the Nassau Grouper at the Little Cayman aggregation site, and found that the temporary surge in the nutrient supply rate was larger than nearly all other published sources of nutrients on coral reefs, an ecosystem that is typically a food and nutrient desert. Beyond the loss of this iconic species in the Caribbean, the significant decline in Nassau Grouper and their spawning aggregations over the last few decades has likely had large consequences on the productivity of the reefs that historically hosted spawning aggregations. To read the full paper, click here. And to see all of the scientific papers that have included REEF's data and programs, visit our Publications page.

A Few Spaces Remain on 2015 REEF Trips - Fiji, Curacao, Catalina, and St. Lucia

Our 2015 REEF Trips are off to a great start, with fun, successful trips to Kona and Grand Cayman so far. Most of the remaining trips are sold out, but a few spaces remain. We would love to have you join us in Fiji (May 2-12, one male space left), Curacao (Aug 22 - 29, one male space left), Catalina Island (Nov 1 - 5, 4 spaces left), or St. Lucia (Dec 5-12, 6 spaces left). For trips that are sold out, we are happy to add your name on a wait list, as sometimes traveler's plans do change. We are working hard to get the 2016 trips organized. Our Philippines trip next April is already half full, so act soon on this one if you are interested. The rest of the 2016 schedule will be ready soon. To find out details on all of these trips, visit www.REEF.org/trips.

New Items Added to REEF Store

If you haven't checked out REEF's online store recently, now is a perfect time to get a jump on your holiday shopping! We have added several new items, including a newly-designed REEF shirt that features our logo with all your favorite ocean creatures intertwined and a brand new Nudibranchs of the Indo-Pacific book. Visit www.REEF.org/store to check out these items and more.

Putting It To Work: New Study Documents Decline in Sunflower Stars and Resulting Impacts in the Ecosystem

Sunflower Star and Green Sea Urchin abundance, as recorded in REEF surveys from January 2010 to November 2014 in Washington and British Columbia (n = 1568 surveys).

Between 2013 and 2015, the US Pacific Northwest and western Canada experienced a mass mortality of sea stars. The Sunflower Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), a previously abundant predator, began to show signs of a wasting syndrome in early September 2013, and dense aggregations disappeared from many sites in a matter of weeks. REEF surveyors certainly noticed, and the decline was reflected in the REEF database. The authors of a new publication just out in the journal PeerJ used the REEF database to document the decline at a regional scale. In addition to the dramatic decline in Sunflower Stars, they found a four-fold increase in the number of Green Sea Urchins (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis). The sea urchin increase also resulted in declines in kelp canopy coverage. This type of ecological change, where a change in one species impacts many others, is known as a trophic cascade. Because of the long-term and wide-spread nature of the REEF survey program, our data have proven invaluable in documenting the impacts of the seastar wasting disease. The study was conducted by Jessica Schultz, Ryan Cloutier, and Isabelle M. Côté from Simon Fraser University and the Vancouver Aquarium. Visit www.REEF.org/db/publications to see this and all of the 60+ scientific publications that have included REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project data.

Summer Lionfish Derby Series a Success in 2016

REEF Lionfish staff, Emily Stokes, measuring a lionfish at a derby this summer. Photo by Sarah Schindehette.
A group of college students who created a Lionfish Derby team. Photo by Sarah Schindehette.
Local chefs prepare lionfish to be served at a REEF Derby.

This summer seemed to fly by, and along with it went REEF’s 2016 Summer Lionfish Derby Series! It was an exciting summer full of “firsts” for the derby program. We added a fourth derby to the series, which we hosted in Sarasota in partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. We also hosted our first Lionfish Culinary Competition in conjunction with the Palm Beach County Lionfish Derby, held at Loggerhead Marinelife Center, with support from the NUISANCE Group and Chef Chris Sherrill. The Sarasota and Palm Beach County derbies were full weekend events rather than single day removals, which gave competitors more time to get to sites that aren’t fished as often and to maximize the amount of lionfish removed. To top it all off, the Fort Lauderdale Derby teams brought in an astounding 1,250 lionfish in a single day! In all, the teams removed 2,426 lionfish during the REEF Lionfish Derbies in 2016. A whopping 18,560 lionfish have been removed in all REEF Derbies since 2009. Way to go teams. More stats below.

2016 Summer Series Derby Stats

Total Lionfish Removed:

Sarasota (July 9th & 10th) = 429

Fort Lauderdale (July 16th) = 1,250

Palm Beach County (August 13th & 14th) = 337

Upper Keys (September 10th) = 323

Total Lionfish Removed During 2016 Derby Series = 2,426

Total Lionfish Removed from ALL REEF Derbies (since 2009) = 18,560

Largest Lionfish Caught = 427 mm (~16.8 inches)

Smallest Lionfish Caught = 24 mm (~.94 inches)

Thank you to all of our 2016 Derby sponsors who made this series possible, including Diver’s Direct, Evolve Diving, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuaries, the Florida State Park Service, Ocean Reef Conservation Commission, and ZooKeeper! The 2016 Summer Lionfish Derby Series was funded in part by a grant awarded from Mote Marine Laboratory’s Protect Our Reefs Grants Program, which is funded by proceeds from the sale of the Protect Our Reefs specialty license plate. To learn more, visit www.mote.org/4reef.

The Faces of REEF: Deb Hebblewhite

Deb working hard on the Micronesia REEF Trip in 2016.
Bluespotted Ribbontail Ray. Photo courtesy WikiCommons, by Jens Petersen.

REEF members are at the heart of our marine conservation programs. Over 50,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.

This month we highlight Deb Hebblewhite, a REEF member since 1999. Deb lives in Denver, Colorado. She has conducted 129 surveys and has participated in several REEF Field Survey Trips. Here's what Deb had to say about REEF:

When and how did you first volunteer with REEF or become a REEF member?

I was in Cozumel in the 90’s when I first discovered a copy of Paul and Ned’s early Caribbean Fish ID book. I was so very excited to be able to start identifying the creatures I was seeing underwater. It definitely made SCUBA so much more enjoyable for me. I don’t remember how I found out about it but my first REEF trip was an intro to surveying trip led by Lad in Key Largo in August of 2002. The main reason I signed up for that trip was the advertised chance to see the Coral Spawn. We ventured out late one night and the corals waited until we were almost out of bottom time before they finally started popping. It was a new and magical experience for my dive buddy and I. I hope to have the chance to see that again one day.

What is the most fascinating fish encounter you’ve experienced?

As cool as the Coral Spawn was, my favorite experience on a REEF trip came in the Sea of Cortez in 2008. In the middle of the afternoon we came upon a huge bait ball. I don’t recall the type of fish but this bait ball was larger than anything I had ever seen. It remained in the same location for quite awhile so we were able to dive it twice. On the second dive I spent a good amount of time just sitting on the bottom looking up in awe at the amazing, swirling tangle of life above me.

Is there a fish you haven’t seen yet diving, but would like to?

Surprisingly there were no large fish feeding on that bait ball I saw in the Sea of Cortez. The one fish I would really like to see while diving is any type of billfish. There is something about their speed and power that I find fascinating. I’m going back to the Sea of Cortez with REEF in August so maybe there will be another bait ball and I will get my chance to eye that billfish.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

I love all kinds of rays, especially Manta Rays, mainly for their grace moving through the water. When I dove the Red Sea I encountered Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays and they are some of the most memorable animals for me. They are just so pretty and colorful.

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

I live in Colorado so don’t do much diving locally. I don’t really have an ultimate favorite place. I enjoy traveling to new destinations but since I’ve been to Dominica three times I would have to say it’s my favorite Caribbean location. Though I get a good amount of vacation time I have several other interests that I travel for so some years I only go on one dive trip. However, 2016 was unusual for me as I went to Dominica in February and then participated in two big firsts for REEF; the first REEF trip to Cuba and the first REEF trip to Micronesia.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

Participating in REEF and completing REEF surveys increases my enjoyment of SCUBA exponentially, and gives me satisfaction and a sense of purpose. There are so many detrimental things happening to our oceans today. Adding to the REEF database by submitting surveys makes me feel like I’m doing some small part to help the underwater world I love. In the process I’ve learned so many fascinating things about fish and other sea creatures. It’s fun too to do something that’s a little bit off mainstream. The folks in my office think it’s fun to tell people that “Debbie is out counting fish” when I’m away on a REEF Trip. I feel privileged to be a REEF member and to have the opportunity to dive with so many amazing people who truly care about our seas. I believe it is incumbent upon those of us who experience it first hand to be the ambassadors for the oceans. Sharing what we know with those who never get the chance to experience that magical underwater world is an important way to engage people in the fight to protect our oceans.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub