Notes from the Field – 2009 REEF Grouper Moon Project

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Grouper Moon Project researchers and volunteers documented Nassau grouper spawning on all three Cayman Islands in 2009. This spawning release image was taken on the Little Cayman aggregation. Photo by Brice Semmens.
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Thousands of Nassau grouper aggregated to spawn on the west end of Little Cayman Island following the full moon in February. Photo by Phil Bush.
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The Cayman Brac team aboard the Glen Ellen.
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Grouper Moon researchers take video with lasers of individual Nassau grouper on the aggregation. The images are later analyzed to determine the size distribution of the aggregation.
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The Grand Cayman team happy after finding aggregating grouper.
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Dr. Semmens presents findings from the project to over 75 Little Cayman residents and visitors.
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Over 1,000 Nassau grouper were found on Cayman Brac, an area that was previously thought to only have a small, remnant spawning aggregation. Photo by Phil Bush.
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The path of the current drifter that was released at the Cayman Brac aggregation site on the night of spawning (19 days at sea). The current pattern is similar to that seen with drifters released on Little Cayman. Jamaica is in the southeast corner.

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.

Grouper Moon Project Research Planned for February 2010

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Approximately 4,000 Nassau grouper aggregate each winter off the west end of Little Cayman Island. Photo by Phil Bush.

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.

Welcome New Field Stations

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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.

 

  • A-2-Z Scuba - Puyallup WA 
  • Adam Nardelli - Fort Lauderdale FL 
  • Adventure Sports - Gresham WA 
  • Aquatic Obsessions - St. Petersburg FL 
  • Blue Marble Divers - Hagerstown MD 
  • Coastal Carolina University, Marine Science - Conway SC 
  • FIN O'ahu - Honolulu HI 
  • HydroSports Dive and Travel - Keizer OR 
  • Living Art Marine Center - Honolulu HI 
  • Reef Watch Waikiki - Honolulu HI
  • Rob McCall - Key West FL 
  • Salem Scuba - Salem OR 
  • Scuba School and Dive Center - Fort Lauderdale FL 
  • Scuba Works - Jupiter FL 
  • Silent World Dive Center - Key Largo FL 
  • Terry Sumpter - Rohrersville MD 
  • The Downtown Aquarium - Denver CO 
  • Whidbey Island Dive Center - Oak Harbor WA

 

Members Learn About Coral Conservation and See Rare Sights on Key Largo Field Survey

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REEF members joined REEF co-founders and board members, Ned and Anna DeLoach for a great week in Key Largo.
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Bluestripe grunts as far as you can see on Snapper Ledge. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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Ken Nedimyer's coral nursery of staghorn coral. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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A juvenile jacknifefish was one of the many fish found during the week. Photo by Ned DeLoach.

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

Divers and Snorkelers Needed for Upcoming REEF Trips

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There are a few Field Survey trips in 2011 with spaces available. Please consider joining us in one of these great destinations – Maui, Roatan, and the Bahamas. These trips 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. REEF staff lead these trips, and each features daily classroom seminars and a full diving schedule.

Maui, Hawaii – April 16-22 - The package includes 4 days of diving on the dramatic reefs off Lanai and west Maui with Extended Horizons, who operates one of the friendliest and most experienced scuba charter boat in Lahaina. They offer up to 33% more bottom time than other Lanai dive boats and their interpretive naturalist staff make this operation a perfect fit for a REEF group. We will also do several shore dives around the island. And with all of the beautiful beaches and land-based activities, this is a great destination for non-diving friends and family. Led by Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, REEF Director of Science.

Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas – June 12-18 – The package includes 7 nights at Green Turtle Club and 6 days of 2 tank boat dives at Brandal’s Dive Shop. In addition to conducting fish surveys, this trip will help document the establishment and consequences of invasive lionfish in REEF’s ongoing effort to minimize the Indo-Pacific predator’s impact on native fish populations, including dissections of specimens to document prey. Led by Lad Akins, REEF Director of Special Projects.

Roatan, Honduras – July 30-August 6 – The package includes 7 nights accommodations at Anthony’s Key Resort, all meals, 3 single tank boat dives per day (6 days), 2 single tank boat night dives, a day excursion to Maya Key, and airport transfers. REEF is conducting this project at the invitation of the Roatan Marine Park to survey in the protected areas of the park to evaluate how the reserves are working. Led by Alecia Adamson, REEF Field Operations Coordinator.

View the entire REEF Trip schedule here -- http://www.reef.org/fieldsurveys/schedule. To inquire about a trip and to reserve your spot, contact the REEF Travel Consultant at Caradonna, 1-877-295-7333 (REEF), or via e-mail REEF@caradonna.com.

REEF Welcomes New General Manager

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When you call the REEF office, you may be greeted with a new voice. Please join us in welcoming Martha Klitzkie as the new General Manager. After completing a Bachelor of Arts from Warren Wilson College, a passion for marine education led her to serve as the Education Director at the Pigeon Key Foundation in Marathon, Florida. She later went on to direct a larger marine education program based at Camp Ocean Pines, located on the central coast of California. During this time she also completed a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership and Administration from Argosy University. But a love for the Florida Keys and its coral reefs brought her back home to the sunshine state to join the REEF team. As the General Manager, Martha supervises a variety of activities necessary to the day-to-day operations at REEF. Welcome, Martha!

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