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
REEF is proud to partner with over 130 dive shops, dive clubs, individuals, and other organizations as REEF Field Stations.
This month we feature Reef Divers of the Little Cayman Beach Resort in the Caribbean, which has been a Field Station since 2004. They offer beginner and advanced fish ID classes, the shop carries REEF Survey Starter Kits and ID books, and they have a very knowledgeable dive staff who love helping with those hard-to-identify species. Reef Divers staff have seen first hand that conducting REEF surveys makes their customer’s dives that much more fun and enjoyable, and they have many repeat customers who are surveyors. The dive shop and resort have also been generous supporters of the Grouper Moon Project field logistics through the years.
Reef Divers is one of four dive operations on Little Cayman. The island is home to what is likely the most famous wall dive in the world, Bloody Bay, where the wall starts as shallow as 18 feet and has everything from sand flats to coral pinnacles to sheer vertical walls. This mixture allows divers to see plentiful fish life. Fishwatchers fill up their survey slate quickly, and it’s a perfect place to try for a “Century Dive” (100 species on one dive). Long-time Reef Divers instructor and active REEF leader, Dottie Benjamin, says she had the pleasure of meeting Ned and Anna DeLoach while working on the WaveDancer in Belize and was on board during a REEF Field Survey trip. Dottie says she “learned lots of great information that week and my interest in fish was born.”
When asked what the most interesting fish that their divers had ever recorded, Dottie provided this story – “Last year on a moonless night dive, a few of our divers came up with a tall fish tale of a very strange fish they spotted while doing their safety stop on the hang chain. Luckily, they got some good photos of it and we were able to identify it with some help from REEF science staff as a Tripod Fish (Bathypterois grallator) juvenile. The adults are only found on the ocean floor at depths of 3,000 to 15,000 feet. A very cool find!
Lad Akins, REEF Director of Special Projects, recently co-authored a paper summarizing work documenting feeding patterns of lionfish in the Bahamas. Understanding the predation behavior of this invasive species is important to be able to predict and mitigate the effects of Indo-Pacific lionfish (Pterois volitans) on Caribbean fish communities. Lad and his colleagues at Simon Frasier University studied the activity levels and prey consumption rates of lionfish on 12 shallow coral reefs in the Bahamas in relation to time of day and prey availability. Lionfish predation rates and activity levels were significantly higher during crepuscular (dawn and dusk) periods than at mid-day. Available prey fish biomass was highest at dawn but lower at mid-day and dusk, suggesting that lionfish predation activity is not limited by prey availability alone. The calculated average daily prey consumption rates was ~3 times the estimates obtained from studies of captive lionfish in their native range and of invasive lionfish observed only during the day. These results will help to predict more accurately the effect of predation by invasive lionfish on native reef fish communities. The study was published in the scientific journal Marine Ecology Progress Series, Vol. 433. A summary of this and all other scientific publications that have included REEF data and programs are given on the Publications Resources page, at http://www.reef.org/db/publications.
Are you ready to take a dive trip that counts? If you are looking to spend a week in a wonderful destination, learning and exploring with a group of fun and like-minded divers and snorkelers, then don't miss out on a REEF Trip. Now is the time to book your 2012 Field Survey with one of REEF's expert guides. Get in touch with our travel experts at Caradonna to find out more and to book your space - 1-877-295-7333 (REEF), or via e-mail REEF@caradonna.com. Details are given below and more information can be found online at http://www.REEF.org/trips
April 21-28 - Nevis - Oualie Beach Resort. Led by Christy Semmens, REEF Director of Science.
May 26-June 2 (SOLD OUT) - Sun Dancer II, Belize - Lionfish Control Study, led by Lad Akins, REEF Director of Special Projects and Peter Hughes.
June 9-16 (SOLD OUT) and June 16-23 (2 SPACES LEFT) - San Blas Islands, Panama - Coral Lodge, led by Paul Humann, REEF Co-Founder and Renowned Underwater Photographer and Author.
July 14-21 - Lionfish workshop in Dominica - Dive Dominica and Anchorage Hotel, led by Lad Akins, REEF Director of Special Projects.
July 28 - August 4 - San Salvador, Bahamas - Riding Rock Inn and Marina, led by Paul Humann, REEF Co-Founder and Renowned Underwater Photographer and Author.
September 22-29 (6 SPACES LEFT)- Sea of Cortez, Baja Mexico - Rocio del Mar liveaboard, led by Drs. Christy and Brice Semmens, REEF Director of Science, REEF Researcher.
September 26-30 (SOLD OUT) - Hornby Island, British Columbia - Hornby Island Diving, led by Janna Nichols, REEF Outreach Coordinator.
October 6-13 - Bermuda - Triangle Diving and Grotto Bay Hotel, led by Ned and Anna DeLoach, REEF Board Members and World-Famous Marine Life Authors and Photographer/Videographers.
November 10-17, British Virgin Islands - Cuan Law liveaboard, led by Heather George, REEF Expert.
December 1-8 (SOLD OUT), Cozumel - Aqua Safari, led by Tracey Griffin, REEF Expert.
In July 1993, REEF had the first Field Survey trip in Key Largo and welcomed our first members. Yesterday, on June 29, 2012, we were excited to welcome REEF Member #50,000. REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. The REEF staff and Board of Directors extend a big thank you to all of our members for making the last nineteen years a success.
On behalf of the REEF Staff and Trustees, I want to thank all the donors from our Winter Fundraising campaign who helped us reach our target goal. With your help, we can continue REEF's core conservation programs, such as fighting the Lionfish invasion in the Caribbean, protecting Grouper spawning aggregations, collecting data through our Volunteer Fish Survey Project, and providing free online "Fishinars" to the general public and fish experts worldwide.
If you haven't given already, there are a few days left in our campaign to receive my limited, signed print of a Grouper Moon aggregation for contributions of $250 and over. In addition to donating online, you can also call REEF Headquarters at 305-852-0030, or mail in your donation to REEF, PO Box 246, Key Largo, FL 33037. Thank you again for your support!
Earlier this summer, we proudly released the next generation of REEF survey technology, the REEF Data Entry Program. When surveying began in 1993, divers and snorkelers wrote out each sighted fish species on a slate and submitted the surveys to the database using paper scantron forms. In 1994, we developed pre-printed underwater survey paper to make surveying easier, and in 2005 we said goodbye to bubble-filling and premiered online data entry using the Internet. The time had come to innovate yet again.
With our members in mind, we looked to develop a data entry tool that would meet the varied needs of our surveyors, including those who are traveling or live in areas with limited Internet access. The REEF Survey Data Entry Program allows our volunteers to enter REEF surveys without an Internet connection. When they have access to the web, the entered surveys are uploaded to the REEF online entry portal. Users then logon to the portal, complete error checking, and submit the surveys to REEF. The program operates on both Mac and PC computers, and is available for all of REEF’s survey regions. Our Beta-testers and early users agree it’s a great program, and many of them prefer the offline data entry program over online data entry.
The program is free to download at: www.REEF.org/dataentryprogram. Give it a try next time you survey! We hope you enjoy the program as much as we do. Feel free to send feedback to data@REEF.org. REEF extends a huge thank you to programmer, Chris MacGregor, for his work on this project, as well as REEF members who encouraged us to pursue this option and made contributions to support its development.