Endangered Nassau grouper in the Caymans will live to spawn another generation: an 11th hour ruling

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Findings from the Grouper Moon Project have led to an 11th hour ruling that will ensure continued protections for the endangered Nassau grouper. The seasonal fishing ban on Nassau grouper spawning aggregation sites in the Cayman Islands, which was set to expire in just a few days, has been extended for another eight years. The protections, which were initially enacted in 2003 and included an 8-year sunset clause, prohibit fishing for the species at spawning aggregation sites between November and March (the reproductive season). REEF has been working closely with the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment (DoE) since 2001 as part of the Grouper Moon Project to study Nassau grouper aggregations in the Cayman Islands and to determine how to best protect this iconic Caribbean reef species. Our research has focused on the west end aggregation site on Little Cayman, which supports one of the last great reproductive populations of this endangered species. REEF is extremely proud of our involvement in the Grouper Moon Project and we look forward to similar conservation victories in the years to come. Lessons learned in the Cayman Islands have benefited Nassau grouper conservation efforts throughout the Caribbean. Watch this 3-minute video to see spectacular footage of the aggregation and to learn more about the project.

Normally solitary and territorial, during the winter full moons Nassau grouper travel and group together to spawn. Due to the reliable timing and location of the spawning aggregations, plus the ease with which these relative loners can be caught while congregating by the hundreds and thousands to spawn, most known Caribbean aggregation sites have been fished to exhaustion. The ground-breaking research conducted as part of the Grouper Moon Project by scientists and volunteers from REEF, the DoE, and Oregon State University, led the DoE to recommend a set of actions necessary to recover and protect the species throughout the Cayman Islands. Actions include: implementing a closed season for Nassau grouper in all Cayman waters from November through March, permanently closing the aggregation sites to fishing year round (because these special places host aggregations of dozens of species throughout the year), and modifying existing catch limits for the species during other times of the year. The Cayman Islands Cabinet is currently reviewing these recommendations. While all those involved in the Grouper Moon Project are pleased that the Marine Conservation Board was able to take action prior to the expiration of the current ban, we are hopeful that Cabinet will enact permanent protections to ensure that there are Nassau grouper on coral reefs for generations to come.

The Grouper Moon Project has been supported in part by the Lenfest Ocean Program, the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, the NOAA International Coral Reef Conservation Program, Southern Cross Club, Little Cayman Beach Resort, Peter Hillenbrand, and REEF member contributions. We greatly appreciate all our members who have contributed financially to REEF to make this important work possible.

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! 

The Call of the Deep Blue on a Landlocked Intern

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Joe Cavanaugh with our wonderful new intern Lauren.

As we continue to showcase our valuable interns, I mentioned in last months newsletter that we would introduce our remaining fall intern. With that thought in mind please join REEF in welcoming Lauren Finan.  Lauren is a student at the University of Colorado Boulder, pursuing her studies in Environmental Policy which is why she was such a good candidate for our program.  She has a strong passion for the quality of our reefs and the ocean and diligently championed for our last remaining fall intern slot.  An avid diver since age 14, she became interested in the quality of our delicate ecosystem, however, due to her locale in Boulder, she was totally landlocked and did not have the ability to get out and dive, and she will be doing plenty of that now, along with working her way through the various levels of our Fish Identification Course.  Lauren role here at REEF will be the coordination of our presence at DEMA this year, as well as maintaining our membership data updates and working on the improvement of our educational/outreach program.  We're fortunate that both our fall interns will be with us until December.

REEF Welcomes New Office Manager

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Bonnie Greenberg recently joined REEF as the office manager. She brings with her more than 20 years of experience in non-profit management and entrepreneurship: including work with Marathon Community Theatre, Habitat for Humanity of the Upper Keys , director of marketing with a family business in Pennsylvania and a few years working as a journalist for local media. She likes to snorkel, sail, spend time with friends, read great books now and then, and create a good meal. Having said for years she was writing her own version of the Great American Novel - Bonnie spent the past two years as the front desk associate with a small Florida Keys Resort while she toiled at her story. She’s about half-way there. She holds a BFA from Emerson College. Bonnie resides in Key Largo, FL with her long-term boyfriend and 3 cats. Next time you find yourself in Key Largo, please swing by REEF HQ to meet Bonnie and the other REEF staff.

Believe It Or Not -- REEF Volunteers Grow a Coral Reef

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REEF volunteers measure their staghorn coral transplants.
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Ken Nedimyer clip a coral fragment from a "mother" colony for use as a transplant.
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A staghorn coral "garden" created with transplant fragments off Key Largo, FL. REEF volunteers helped create several of the coral modules last month.
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Ken, wife Denise and daughter Julia pose behind one of their remarkable coral creations.

During the last week of April, divers from around the country gathered at Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, Florida for a REEF Fish Behavior Tour hosted by Ned and Anna DeLoach. After making two morning dives each day, the group spent their late afternoons and early evenings attending entertaining talks about the myriad fish they encountered on the reef. Lad Akins, REEF’s Special Projects Director, dropped by to explain the science behind the recent invasion of Indo-Pacific lionfish in the western Atlantic. But the highlight of the week was the rare opportunity for everyone to create their own coral garden.

Yes, you read it right: After being giving instructions by coral scientist Ken Nedimyer of the Coral Restoration Foundation, participants headed out the following morning to Ken’s coral nursery located in Hawke Channel where they transplanted cuttings of staghorn coral from a mother colony onto a set of nursery blocks.

After watching 90 percent of the Keys’ staghorn coral die off from a variety of reasons over the past decades, Ken, an aquaculturist by trade, decided to do something about the disheartening problem. In the late 1990’s, he began nurturing small buds of rapidly growing staghorn that by chance settled on his underwater “live rock” farm. Following several years of trial and error, Ken pioneered the first successful method for cultivating and transplanting large quantities of coral. His current success rate hovers at an incredible 90 percent.

After the REEF divers carefully epoxyed their branches on numerically coded pedestals and recorded measurement data, the group headed off to a site on Molasses Reef where, in 1984 the M/V Wellwood, an ocean-going freighter, ran aground destroying 644 square meters of coral reef framework. Federal agencies began extensive restoration of the site in 2002 including emplacement of numerous high-profile limestone modules (click here to read about REEF's post-restoration monitoring of the fish populations on these modules). Unfortunately, to date, the new structures have had limited success recruiting new coral growth. However, the area has one extraordinary success story and the focus of our second dive: Ken’s rapidly growing staghorn coral garden – the two-year result of transplanting nursery grown corals to the grounding site.

Dates for next year’s 2nd Annual Key Largo REEF Fish Behavior Tour at Amoray are scheduled for May 29 to June 5, 2009. The popular fish behavior talks cover Reproductive Strategies, What Fish Eat, Cleaning Stations, Discovering the Night Reef, and Fish Life Cycles. Participants will once again establish their own coral colonies and transplant this year’s nursery crop onto the reef.

REEF Surveyor Notes a Rare Find

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A mystery fish, captured on film by REEF surveyor Rob McCall.
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The mystery fish turned out to be the rarely seen Pugjaw Wormfish.
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The swimming motion was sinuous, much like an eel.
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The wormfish shared a burrow with a yellowhead jawfish.

REEF TWA Advanced Assessment Team member, Rob McCall, has over 625 surveys under his belt and 281 fish species on his lifelist. But earlier this summer, during a dive in the Florida Keys, he found something that surprised him - the extremely rare Pugjaw Wormfish (Cerdale floridana). Here is his story -- Last June, while diving at Rock Key off Key West, I noticed a very slender (about the diameter of thin drinking straw) white fish about 6 cm long. I could see the fish had a rounded head but could not see dorsal or tail fins. The fish swam with a sinuous movement, much like an eel or worm, and dove into a burrow when it saw me. It did not immediately reappear and I soon swam off in search of other fish. That night I attempted to identify the mystery fish in my reference books, but was unable to get even a rough idea of what it might be.

Subsequent to the first sighting, I saw a similar fish on two other occasions at Rock Key. All sightings were within an area about 8 x 4 meters, with sand bottom bordered by high profile reef. On the second sighting, the fish dove into a burrow and did not reappear. On the third sighting, the fish immediately dove into a Yellowhead Jawfish burrow (the normal occupant was a male Yellowhead Jawfish who happened to be mouth-brooding eggs at the time; the jawfish was hovering above the burrow and did not seem particularly upset that the mystery fish “borrowed” his home.) The mystery fish did not reappear during the ten minutes or so I spent photographing the jawfish.

I stopped by REEF Headquarters in early August and asked Lad Akins, REEF Director of Special Projects, if he had any ideas to help me identify the fish. Based on my hazy description, Lad thought it might be a type of worm-eel. But when I researched online, it did not seem to be a good fit.

On August 22, while diving at Nine Foot Stake off Key West (and armed with my camera set up for macro) I came across one of the mystery fish – truly a case of me being in the right place at the right time. The fish was out in the open but dove into a nearby burrow – I don’t know if it was his or a “borrowed” one – when he saw me. I decided to wait a couple of minutes to see if it would reappear, and within a minute or two, it stuck its head back out. Over the next ten minutes it made several darting forays from the burrow, getting a little more used to me, or perhaps a little more desperate to get home. This fish seemed longer than the one(s) at Rock Key – perhaps 8 cm or so.

The four sightings shared some common features. All were at 20-24 ft. depth with sand bottom. Three of the four burrows were within 5-10 cm of small coral heads or rubble clumps. Dorsal and tail fins are visible in the photos; the fish is not actually as slender as it appears to the naked eye.

I was pretty well stumped over identifying what the fish was, even with photos, until one night I was re-reading Ned DeLoach and Paul Humman’s Reef Fish Behavior and under the article on Yellowhead Jawfish, I noticed a reference to Pugjaw Wormfish sharing a burrow with the jawfish. The next morning I researched it online and found a photo which appeared to be a very good match for my mystery fish.

We don’t know how rare the Pugjaw Wormfish might be, but according to the REEF database, they have been reported only five other times: one in Florida, one in Cuba and three in Bonaire. Convinced there are more Pugjaw’s waiting to make an appearance here in Key West, I’ve got the other instructors on our dive boat keeping their eyes open in the hopes that one of us will once again be in the right place at the right time.

Rob McCall is a scuba instructor in Key West and has been a REEF member and surveyor since 2000.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub