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.

Putting it to Work: New Publication from the Grouper Moon Project

Diver-based fish length surveys conducted by REEF volunteers and Grouper Moon scientists were used in the study published earlier this year. Photo by Phil Bush.

We are proud to share the latest publication to result from REEF's programs - the paper, titled "Hydroacoustics for the discovery and quantification of Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus) spawning aggregations" was published in the scientific journal Coral Reefs earlier this year. The Grouper Moon Project is always looking for new and/or better ways of accurately estimating the number of spawning Nassau Grouper at the aggregation sites being monitored. In 2014, we tested the use of a split-beam echosounder as a tool for surveying the abundance and size of fish at the aggregation site; the results of the study are detailed in this peer-reviewed paper. We found that the echosounder performs fairly well at providing an index of abundance, although the absolute accuracy of the method was not sufficient to replace other survey methods (e.g. mark and recapture monitoring). After calibrating the method with diver-based fish length surveys, the tool was able to accurately capture estimates of aggregating fish sizes. Surveys on all 3 islands (Little Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Grand Cayman) showed that the average size of Nassau Grouper on Little Cayman was significantly larger than on both Brac and Grand. Furthermore, the sizes of Nassau Grouper on Brac and Grand were not significantly different. Based on this study, the echosounder is a potentially useful tool for surveying aggregations, but is likely best used to complement more intensive diver-based survey methods.

Grouper Moon researchers, Dr. Brice Semmens and Dr. Scott Heppell, along with our colleague from Cayman Islands Department of Environment, Croy McCoy, were co-authors on the paper. You can find a link to this paper, along with information on all publications that have resulted from REEF's programs can be found at www.REEF.org/db/publications.

Home Grown REEF Clubs! FIN and Pacific Northwest Critter Watchers

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FIN members gathered at Maluaka Beach in July for a Great Annual Fish Count dive.
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FIN members, Liz Foote and Josh Wittmer (who is also a previous REEF Marine Conservation Intern and now works for the Pacific Whale Foundation on Maui), getting ready for a FIN-organized REEF dive at Honolua Bay earlier this month.

We say it often - REEF is what it is because of our fantastic members.  The grassroots nature of the organization is reflected in all aspects of our work, including the amazing volunteers like Audrey Smith who help with daily operating tasks at REEF HQ, the networks of regional REEF partners who enlist new REEF members and provide continuing education and survey opportunities for active surveyors, our members who generously support REEF with financial donations, and of course the thousands of survey volunteers who submit marine life surveys each year. 

As the corps of active and experienced REEF surveyors has grown, we have been fortunate to have some of those members take their support and interest in REEF to the next level by forming local REEF groups.  Two such REEF "clubs" are FIN (the Fish Identification Network)  and the Pacific Northwest Critter Watchers.  FIN is a REEF club based in Maui, and is touted as an opportunity to join friends and fellow fish lovers in exploring the coral reefs of Maui.  The club is for all interested divers and snorklers, and promotes marine conservation and the objectives of REEF.  FIN was founded by Terri and Mike Fausnaugh (Mike is also a member of the REEF Hawaii Advanced Assessment Team (AAT)) and is supported by the cadre of REEFers that REEF partner, Liz Foote of Project S.E.A.-Link, has generated in Hawaii through the years.  There are monthly (sometimes weekly) FIN dives at various beaches on Maui and at every event FIN folks set up a REEF station on the beach with survey materials and identification reference guides in an attempt to lure in new afishianados!  The PNW Critter Watchers encourages all divers in Washington and Oregon to become underwater naturalists.  Through training and quarterly REEF survey dives, Critter Watcher founders and REEF Pacific AAT members, Janna Nichols and Wes Nicholson, aim to put the fun in critter watching and promote REEF surveying in the Pacific Northwest.  Janna also maintains a Critter Watchers website that includes a fish of the month feature, an events listing, unusual sightings reported by fellow Critter Watchers, and congratulations to REEF surveyors who have advanced through the REEF experience level system.

These home-grown REEF clubs are a great way to help spread the fun and enjoyment of REEF surveying to a local dive community.  We are grateful that we have such enthusiastic and supportive volunteers who are willing to help spread the REEF word.  These on-the-ground activities could never be accomplished without your help!

Enter Your REEF Survey Data Online

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Are you a REEF surveyor along the US & Canadian West Coast or Hawaii? If so, you can now enter your survey data online.

Are you a REEF surveyor along the US and Canadian West coast or Hawaii? If so, did you know that you can now enter your data ONLINE! No more scanforms (unless you really want to use them - they'll still work – although note that there will be a fee to purchase scanforms beginning in 2008). No more scrounging around to find a pencil. No more stamps and trips to the post office. All you need to do is click on Submit Data Online under the Database menu and you're on your way. Entering data online is not only easy for you, it greatly eases the workload on the limited REEF staff, enhances the quality of the data and reduces typographical errors, and most importantly, it greatly decreases the processing time from 8 weeks or more for paper scanforms to typically within 2 weeks from the time of online submission.

REEF plans to add the Northeast (Virginia through Newfoundland) and the Tropical Eastern Pacific (Baja Mexico to the Galapagos Islands) regions to the online submission program over the next few months in order for all of our program regions to be covered by this convenient data management feature.

REEF Partners with Caradonna Dive Adventures and Previews 2009 Field Survey Season

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REEF Partners with Caradonna Dive Adventures
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Kayla Serotte Conducting REEF Survey
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Linda Schillinger Surveying in Turks and Caicos Islands
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Joe Cavanaugh Surveying Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

REEF is happy to announce our new partnership with Caradonna Dive Adventures as our travel provider, beginning with our 2009 Field Survey Season.  As many of you already know, Caradonna brings years of dive travel acumen and great vendor partnerships, both of which will undoubtedly assist REEF in making our Field Survey Program once again our signature Citizen Science program.  

After all, it is each of you that make all that REEF does in and out of the water possible.  We are closing in on 120,000 Fish Surveys in our world-renowned fish sightings database.  Christy Semmens (REEF Director of Science) and I individually review all of the 1,000 plus surveys entered into the database every month.  We know all of you by name but it is only on our Field Programs that REEF Staff and Board members have the opportunity to put the names to the faces and share the fish surveying exhilaration with you. 

Many of you who use dive travel services have probably used Caradonna in the past and know how good they are at setting up exhilarating dive trips. With Caradonna, you'll almost have a third dive buddy right there with you, wherever you might be! We are previewing our 2009 Season (below) and will be posting additional details and more trips to the website in the coming weeks.   Doris Pfister at Caradonna will serve as our REEF liaison. Doris and I have worked hard these past couple of months to coordinate this exciting schedule.

So without further ado, a preview -

2009 Field Survey Schedule Preview

  • St. Lucia - February 21-28, 2009 with Anse Chastanet Resort, 12-dive all-inclusive package, led by Lisa Mitchell, REEF Executive Director
  • Grenada - July 11-18, 2009 aboard Peter Hughes Wind Dancer, led by Paul Humann
  • St. Croix May 9-16, 2009, with Cane Bay Dive Shop and Carambola Resorts
  • Curacao - October 17-24, 2009 with Sunset Waters Beach Resort
  • Cozumel - December 5-12, 2009 with Aqua Safari and Safari Inn, led by Sheryl Shea

Additional destinations that we are working on include St. Vincent, Maui (Hawaii), Bermuda with Ned DeLoach, and Cancun.  Stay tuned to the REEF Trips webpage.

For all bookings, please contact Doris Pfister, our REEF Dedicated Sales Consultant at REEF@caradonna.com or by phone at 1-877-295-REEF(7333). Details and more trips will be added in the next few weeks and months, so please check the REEF Trips webpage often.

Have you ever wondered how trip locations are decided?  There is a suite of considerations for Field Survey locations, including REEF data needs, diving and tourist infrastructure, costs (evermore important with rising travel costs), partnership and outreach opportunities, fish abundance and diversity, invasive species, educational value, resource management needs, and yes, fun too!  In 2009, REEF staff are planning improvements to our Field Survey program including increased capacity building while the REEF group is onsite and after the trip is over, and increasing the opportunities for resource managers to partner with REEF and utilize the valuable data you collect.  By fostering regional capacity building efforts wherein local stakeholders begin to carry the surveying efforts beyond single events, there is increased likelihood these data will be used for ongoing management decisions. 

120,000! And Counting

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A REEF surveyor records a school of grunts. Photo by Paul Humann.
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REEF volunteer, Dana Haggarty, reviews her data after a survey dive in Monterey Bay.
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REEF data have been used in the stock assessment of Goliath grouper. Photo by Paul Humann.

REEF eclipsed a milestone this week when the REEF Volunteer Survey Project Database passed the 120,000 survey mark.  This represents over 150,000 hours of underwater survey time from our volunteers.  The achievement comes almost 15 years to the day when the first REEF fish survey was conducted off Key Largo, Florida, on July 17, 1993.  Today, the program is going strong throughout the coastal areas of North and Central America, the Caribbean, Bahamas, Galapagos Islands and Hawaii. In the tropical western Atlantic region alone, 96,469 surveys have been conducted at 6,085 sites and 795 fish species have been recorded.  Of course, improving your marine life identification skills, building your lifelist of sighted species, and conducting surveys are a lot of fun.  But have you ever wondered what good are all of these data?  

Volunteer data collection, or citizen science, provides a valuable alternative for scientists and resource agencies needing information but lacking sufficient resources to gather it. In addition, involvement in data collection leads to greater awareness about marine resources and creates a stewardship ethic among key user groups.

In addition to providing data summaries on the REEF Website, REEF staff provide raw data to scientists and resource agencies.  REEF data have been used in the development of stock assessments (Kingsley 2004), in the evaluation of trends of fish species (Semmens et al. 2000), to measure the effect of marine protected areas on kelp forest fish communities (Semmens et al. in prep) and coral reefs (REEF 2003), as an indicator of population pressure on natural resources (Burke and Maidens 2004), to evaluate interactions between species and species-habitat relationships (Auster et al. 2005), to asses the effect of restoration efforts in areas of damaged reef (REEF 2008), and to asses the status of a group of reef fish species that is experiencing significant declines (Ward-Paige et al., in prep A and B).  REEF volunteers have been instrumental in the identification and removal of exotic species (Semmens et al. 2004), in the identification of new species (Taylor and Akins 2007; Weaver and Rocha 2007) and morphological variants of known species (Pattengill-Semmens 1999), and in the documentation of previously unrecorded range extensions (M. Taylor and J. Van Tassel, Pers. Comm.). PDFs of most of these articles and a full listing of scientific papers and reports that have used REEF data are included in the Publications section of the REEF Website.

REEF extends a big thank you to the 10,000+ volunteers who have contributed to this database over the years and we are looking forward to the next 120,000 surveys!  Be sure to visit the Top 10 Stats page to see a quick rundown  of REEF survey activity.  You can also explore the data more in-depth by visiting the Database section of the REEF.org Website.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub