Live From the Field Web Chats With the Grouper Moon Project

Live-feed webcast of Dr. Brice Semmens on the Little Cayman Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation. This year's broadcast is set for February 6th at 11:45am EST. Photo by Josh Stewart.
Grouper Education Program activities include scientific drawing, food web explorations, and more.
Grouper Moon educator, Todd Bohannon, teaching students at Little Cayman Primary School about components of the coral reef food web.

Scientists and volunteers from REEF, and our parters at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, are gearing up for the annual Grouper Moon Project. Scientists will be on the ground and in the water this coming Tuesday for the full moon. Since 2002, the group has conducted ground-breaking research to study the Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations, to help ensure that populations of this iconic species recover. In 2011, with funding from Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, REEF launched an education program to engage Caymanian students in the Grouper Moon Project. This exciting project brings the Nassau Grouper into elementary and high school classrooms through lesson plans and live-feed videos that connect classrooms with scientists in the field.

Three live-feed webcasts are planned over the next two weeks. While the students will be communicating directly with the Grouper Moon scientists, anyone can watch the feeds live or archived. The live-feed schedule is:

- Friday February 6th, from underwater at the Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation

- Monday February 9th, from the Grouper Moon base of operations on Little Cayman, featuring scientists explaining the research objectives, day-to-day activities, and research equipment used during the project.

- Wednesday February 11th, from underwater on the famous Blood Bay Wall.

All webcasts are planned to start at 11:45am EST and will last about 45 minutes. The live feeds stream through YouTube on TheGrouperTeacherREEF channel. The first live feed, on February 6th, will be here. We will post URLs for the other feeds on REEF's Facebook page. The webcasts are archived online here.

Now in its fourth year, the Grouper Education Program presents students with a multi-faceted view of Nassau Grouper, in which students create their own understanding of this important species. Key curricular concepts include: the historical role of Nassau Grouper in the Caribbean, its role as a top predator and its positive impact on local reef health, and the conservation challenges facing the species. It is expected that fifteen classrooms at ten schools will participate in the program this year.

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

The Faces of REEF: Tracey Griffin

Trip leader, Tracey, holding the REEF flag during the 2014 REEF Trip to Cozumel.
The dainty Cherubfish, a small angelfish found in the Caribbean. Photo by Jonathan Lavan.

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 Tracey Griffin, a REEF member since 2005. An active surveyor who lives in Cozumel, Tracey has conducted 851 surveys to date. She is a member of REEF's Advanced Assessment Team for the TWA region, has taught several Fishinars, and leads the annual REEF Field Survey to Cozumel each December. Here's what she had to say about REEF:

How did you become involved with REEF?

I first heard about REEF on a live-aboard trip in the eastern Caribbean. One of the other divers was doing surveys, and I was fascinated! Soon after, I was lucky to be in Cozumel during the annual REEF week there, where I soon became an aficionado! And lucky me, little did I know that years later, I would become the leader of that annual trip!

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys?

I tell divers that doing REEF surveys is like going on a scavenger hunt on every dive. And learning about fish behavior makes diving even more interesting. Knowing what the fish are doing is just as fun as knowing all their names! Even though I have done hundreds of dives in Cozumel, I am still surprised to find new and rarely reported fish.

In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of REEF’s projects and programs?

Reaching out to new divers and snorkelers. I have given give short lectures at dive clubs, but also at events where people may be new to the ocean. I love to see people getting excited about seeing something they may have never noticed before. I believe that getting people excited about the fish will make them more likely to help conserve it.

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

I now live and dive in Cozumel. I think this is one of the most beautiful places to dive in the Caribbean. The majestic coral pillars are amazing, and the schools of fish are magnificent. I often hear people say ‘I have never seen a ____ so big!’ Just another day in Paradise!

Do you have a favorite local REEF field station or dive shop?

I dive with Chili Charters, who is our REEF field survey dive operation in Cozumel. The DM and owner, Rene, has previously taken our REEF field survey course, and loves to help us find fish! It is always nice to dive with a dependable shop that is also interested in REEF and fish ID and ocean conservation.

What is your favorite fish?

Although picking a favorite is difficult, if I had to, I would take the Cherubfish! These skittish little angelfish are very common, and often abundant in Cozumel. And many regular Cozumel divers don’t even see them!

Putting It To Work: Who's Using REEF Data, February 2016

Red Snapper and Gray Snapper are two of the species being evaluated in the Gulf of Mexico using REEF data. Photo by Carol Cox.

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:

- A PhD student at University of Washington is using REEF data to evaluate the distribution of Giant Pacific Octopus in the Pacific Northwest, and how their abundance is related to urbanization.

- REEF data were provided to researchers from University of Miami for use as part of the project, "NOAA RESTORE: Ecosystem modeling efforts in the Gulf of Mexico: current status and future needs to address management and restoration activities." Data will be used to produce maps depicting stressors in the Gulf.

- Researchers from the Sea Doc Society are using REEF data to evaluate Salish Sea fish and invertebrate assemblages and population trends over the last 15 years.

- A student from Indiana University is using REEF data to evaluate fish populations at the Florida Keys artificial reef, Hoyt S. Vandenberg. REEF Advanced Assessment Team members have been annually monitoring the Vandenberg since it was deployed in 2009.

Fish sightings

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Three "REEF" Non-Profits Team Up to Protect Akumal Reefs

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Eric Engler, Gabriela Nava Martinez, Joe Cavanaugh - ReefAid, Reefcheck, and REEF
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Aerial View of Protected Area
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Mayan Ruins Near Resort at Tulum
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Shore View from Bahia Principe
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Large Elkhorn Coral Stand Near Protected Area

In an Enews article last May, I wrote about a collaborative effort between REEF and the Bahia Principe Resort in Akumal, Mexico.  The Resort has been working with ReefAid ever since Hurricane Wilma (2005) did major damage to the reefs just in front of the resort, in an effort to study, protect, and restore these reefs. I was originally invited down to conduct a fish census on a large patch reef area off the beach from the property.   The destruction to the inshore reef during Wilma was severe and ever since, Bahia Principe has worked with ReefAid to restore this patch reef area, establishing a protected zone around the most hard-hit areas.  Part of Bahia Principe's long-term plan is to create a mitigation plan for future storms and to educate guests about ways they, too, can help protect the reefs.  The Hotel Gran Bahia Principe is the Yucatan's largest resort complex, and there are currently 14 such resorts worldwide.  After our last visit, ReefAid's Founder, Eric Engler and I co-wrote a protection and monitoring plan for the Resort that included periodic roving diver surey assessments, special signs and enforcement of no-swim areas, a coral nursery, and coral and invertebrate monitoring using another non-profit's methodology (ReefCheck). 

On our last trip a few weeks ago, Eric and I received Reefcheck training over two days with Gabriela Georgina Nava Martinez, learning their survey methodology.  Gaby also taught a Reefcheck class to the Bahia Principe dive staff , their onsite turtle rescue non-rpfit, Ecologica Bahia, and some of the Resort public relations personnel..   Bahia Principe is now a REEF Field Station and is close to becoming an educational center for REEF, teaching fish ID classes and training Resort guests in how to conduct fish surveys.   Resort staff will soon routinely conduct Roving Diver Surveys of both the protected area and the offshore reefs frequented by multiple dive operators. Additionally, Reefcheck will train the dive staff to conduct 3-4 surveys per year at first to form a baseline assessment of the inshore protected reef.   And finally, this year REEF is running a Field Survey to Bahia Principe (May 17-24, 2008).  Please see our Field Survey page on our website at http://www.reef.org/fieldsurveys/schedule  to learn more about our upcoming survey and how to participate.

The collaborative efforts between our three non-profits in Akumal represent a proactive involvement among multiple stakeholders to protect a critical resource, one that is very susceptible to damage from development and excessive tourist pressures.   The ultimate goal of this synergistic, cooperative effort is to protect a large inshore reef area (see images) and improve the reef integrity with the addition of well-placed coral recruitment modules.  To be candid, much of the Mexican Riviera is slated to be developed by an increasing number of resorts, most with requisite golf courses.  And there are other environmental concerns in addition to the coral reefs offshore that form part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef such as all the cenotes (sink-holes) with their endemic terrestrial and aquatic species; the crucial watershed provided by the cenotes; loss of mangroves; the regional rainforest cover that is in jeopardy; excessive nutrient loading from all the resorts and urban development; not to mention the cultural world heritage significance of the Mayan communities and archaeological sites.  However, the good news is that if Gran Bahia Principe is voluntarily willing to adopt special protection measures for their resort, these may serve as a "eco-friendly" archetype for other resorts in the region.   This partnership building between organizations at the regional and international level bodes well for the adoption of some conservation plans for the area.  Whether the proposed regional development can be slowed to a sustainable level is another story that time will tell. 

If you are interested in learning more, here is an excellent summary article on some of the initiatives between resorts and non-profits working to preserve the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef from the NY Times last week. http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/06/24/travel/24headsup.html?emc=eta1

REEF to Host Two Citizen Science Panel Discussions in Florida Keys

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REEF volunteers are citizen scientists, collecting underwater data to expand knowledge about marine life populations. Photo by Ron Lucas.

On Tuesday, February 26, REEF will host a community panel discussion to raise awareness about how volunteers contribute to scientific understanding of the Florida Keys environment. Rick Bonney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York will lead the discussion. Florida Keys-based citizen science practitioners will present on local projects and ways for volunteers to get involved. Topics include fish and bird surveying, native plants and coral restoration. A reception with the speakers will begin at 6:30, followed by presentations at 7 PM. This event will be held at the Key Largo Public Library and is free and open to the public.

Speakers include:

  • Leda Cunningham, REEF
  • Rick Bonney, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
  • Bryant and Nancy Diersing, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (volunteers)
  • Janice Duquesnel, Florida State Parks
  • Ken Nedimyer, Coral Restoration Foundation

A second panel discussion will be held on Wednesday, March 12 at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Key West and will focus on citizen science projects in the lower Florida Keys. Speakers include:

  • Leda Cunningham, REEF
  • Rick Bonney, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
  • Alison Higgins, The Nature Conservancy
  • Cory Walter, Mote Marine Laboratory
  • Jonathan Rizzo, National Weather Service

Please join REEF staff and community partners for at least one of these educational evenings.

17th Great Annual Fish Count is Here

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REEF Member Judie Clee Surveying. Photo by Ron Lucas.
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REEF Member Brian Hufford Surveying.

The 17th Great Annual Fish Count (GAFC) has arrived! GAFC is a month long event coordinated by REEF Field Stations that encourages volunteer divers and snorkelers to participate in recreational trips to raise awareness regarding marine habitats and trends in fish populations. REEF partners and Field Stations have organized everything from group dives and snorkels to photo contests, BBQs, and aquarium tours. This is a great opportunity to take a free REEF Fish ID class and connect with other individuals as well as groups, such as local dive operations and non-profit organizations, who are also interested in doing the same objectives. Numerous activities have been scheduled for the Pacific Coast, Hawaii, California, Washington, Florida, Maine, British Columbia, and many other regions- and still more are being added! Details for scheduled events can be found on the GAFC website. Each year GAFC events generate approximately 2,000 surveys in July alone and increase the interest and involvement of hundreds of surveyors worldwide. Participating in a GAFC event is a great way to make an active contribution to marine conservation and get involved with what REEF does year round- engage volunteer divers and snorkelers to collect critical, valid, and cost-effective data. We hope you get involved!

Travel Trips and Tips - October

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Cozumel is one of the very few places that REEF surveyors can find the endemic Splendid Toadfish. A few spaces just opened up on the REEF Trip to Cozumel in December. Photo by Doug Biffard.
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In addition to fish, REEF surveyors report sea turtles, such as this one seen by Bev Biffard last year in Cozumel. Photo by Doug Biffard.

Looking for a special gift for that certain someone. A 2009 REEF Trip makes a perfect gift. REEF Trips are not only fun, have diving and fish watching involved (which makes it perfect by my standards) but these trips are educational, green and are scheduled to some of the most beautiful Caribbean dive destinations. Also as an added bonus - all divers need a buddy so you get a good reason to give yourself a trip too!

REEF Trips are filling up fast. One trip that has been sold out for almost a year, Cozumel in December, just had a few spaces open up. This is your opportunity to join REEF Expert and Cozumel local, Sheryl Shea, on an excellent dive vacation. Sheryl is an a-fishy-a-nado extraordinaire and will be sure to infuse great fish watching, interesting local history and lots of fun on these trips. There are 3 spaces available during Week 1, December 6 – 14, including an opportunity for a double occupancy room – 1 male looking for a roommate and 1 female looking for a roommate. So if you are flying solo and don’t want to pay single occupancy we will put you in touch with a potential roommate. Please give us a call for more information and to reserve your space 305-852-0030. There are also a few spaces still available during the second trip, December 13 – 18. Please call the REEF Travel Desk for booking this trip – 877-295-7333.

So remember give the gift of Fish Watching for the holidays – we can prepare you a beautiful gift certificate and even arrange for it to be presented in an autographed fish ID book (or creature or coral) wrapped in Bottom Crawlers Holiday gift wrap. REEF Trips are a great way to enjoy yourself while making a valuable contribution to REEF on several different levels. Remember make this holiday season one that is All About The Fish!

REEF Data Used To Evaluate the Status of Big Fish and Fisheries in the Caribbean

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Nassau grouper is one of 20 predatory fish species that were evaluated in a recently published study in the scientific journal PLoS One. Photo by Selina Heppell.
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Data collected by REEF volunteer surveyors from 86 sites in 22 Caribbean nations were used in the analysis. Stallings 2009.

Data collected as part of the REEF Volunteer Survey Project were the basis of a recent publication evaluating the effect of human population size on coral reef fish populations. The sweeping study, conducted by researcher Dr. Chris Stallings of Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, revealed that sharks, barracuda and other large predatory fishes disappear on Caribbean coral reefs as human populations rise, endangering the region’s marine food web and ultimately its reefs and fisheries. The study, which used data collected by REEF volunteers at sites in 22 Caribbean nations over 15 years, demonstrates the power of volunteer and community research efforts by non-scientists. Data are often insufficient at region-wide scales to assess the effects of extraction in coral reef ecosystems of developing nations. The REEF citizen science project fills this gap by generating valid and needed data over large geographic areas over long time periods.

While other scientists working in the Caribbean have observed the declines of large predators for decades, the comprehensive work by Dr. Stallings documents the ominous patterns in far more detail at a much greater geographic scale than any other research to date. The study found that nations with more people have reefs with far fewer large fish because as the number of people increases, so does demand for seafood. Stallings said that although several factors -- including loss of coral reef habitats -- contributed to the general patterns, careful examination of the data suggests overfishing as the most likely reason for the disappearance of large predatory fishes across the region. He pointed to the Nassau grouper as a prime example. Once abundant throughout the Caribbean, Nassau grouper have virtually disappeared from many Caribbean nearshore areas and are endangered throughout their range.

Dr. Stalling's article on the study, “Fishery-Independent Data Reveal Negative Effect of Human Population Density on Caribbean Predatory Fish Communities,” was published in the May 6, 2009 issue of the journal PLoS One. The paper is available for download here.

To find out more about how REEF Volunteer Survey Project data have been used by scientists and government agencies, visit the Publications page on the REEF Website.

Reports From the Field - 2009 Bermuda Field Survey

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Thirteen lucky REEF members joined Anna and Ned Deloach, Judie Clee, and Chris Flook for a Field Survey to remember in Bermuda.
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The beautiful Puddingwife, one of the largest wrasse species in the western Atlantic. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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Yellowhead Wrasse in Bermuda show unique coloration patterns. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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A teeny tiny, baby Bermuda Chub found under floating Sargassum. Photo by Ned DeLoach.

Over eight years ago, REEF expanded its flagship Fish Survey Project into Bermuda. Since then, local surveyors have contributed over 2500 surveys to the sighting database! In October, thirteen volunteers joined local REEF hosts Judie Clee and Chris Flook for a delightfully full schedule. After two extended survey dives each day, we were treated to a night snorkel and picnic to watch glowworms, a slideshow and dinner at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, a private, guided tour of the nature preserve on Nonsuch Island, and a reception and presentations by the scientists from BREAM (Bermuda Reef Ecosystem Assessment and Mapping Programme). The week was topped off with a grand finale dinner and behind the scenes tour of the Bermuda Aquarium and Zoological Park.

One of the best things about fishwatching is seeing something new. Many areas have endemic fish and experienced fishwatchers know that fish coloration and behaviors can vary a lot from region to region. We arrived prepared to add Bermuda Bream, Bermuda Halfbeaks and Gwelly jacks to our lifelists but found ourselves equally thrilled to see the Bermuda version of the Yellowhead wrasse, called the Redback (for its distinctive red coloration) and the brilliant jewel colors of their Puddingwives. Between dives, Chris Flook, from the Bermuda Aquarium, filled buckets with rafts of Sargassum seaweed and pointed out juvenile chubs, crabs, shrimps, pipefish and frogfish. Judie’s expert eye helped us sort out the damselfish puzzle. We dived several times in an area where the Emerald Parrotfish was once quite common but has not been seen for many years. Our possible sightings have generated some excitement and Judie and Chris are investigating further. Our total species count for the week was 115 and included a rare sighting of a Conchfish.

Thanks go out to Triangle Diving for the welcome BBQ (and Lionfish hors d’oeuvres) and their excellent diving services. And very special thanks to the Bermuda Zoological Society for funding REEF in Bermuda and for underwriting many of our special activities of the week. We’ll be back – and promise that it won’t take eight years!

As this report reminds us -- REEF trips are more than just your average dive vacation. Be sure to check out the REEF trip 2010 schedule, which can be found online at www.REEF.org/fieldsurveys/schedule. We encourage you to join us on our adventures in 2010 and Take a Trip the Counts!

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub