REEF Undertakes Novel Study to Understand Invasive Lionfish Movement

REEF's lionfish tagging team in the USVI.
Acoustically tagging linofish in situ, underwater. Photo by Bonnie Barnes.

REEF, in collaboration with the University of Virgin Islands and Buck Island National Monument, took a major step last week in a novel study to better understand lionfish movement and factors that may influence that movement. The study, focusing on a 2km area of patch and continuous reef in St Croix, used innovative underwater tagging techniques pioneered by REEF to surgically implant transmitters into invasive lionfish within an array of receivers, allowing the team to pinpoint movement of the fish over the next year.

Working over a 7-day period, a team of volunteer divers searched 39 reef sites, locating 53 lionfish and using hand nets to live capture 50 of them (a 94% success rate!). Once captured, the surgical team of USVI graduate student, Elizabeth Smith, and REEF’s Director of Special Projects, Lad Akins, conducted the surgical procedures underwater to insert the acoustic transmitters into the fish and mark them with additional visual tags. Click here to view an 8-minute long segment of Lad Akins and Elizabeth Smith conducting underwater tagging.

A total of 40 fish, averaging just over 20cm in length, were tagged within an array of receivers, allowing the unique signals from each fish to be recorded and triangulated to continuously determine its position. Prior to the tagging event, research teams conducted detailed surveys of the fish communities and other habitat characteristics to determine factors that may influence lionfish movement.

The goals of the program are to better understand lionfish movement and better inform removal and management efforts to reduce lionfish impacts. A total of 11 divers took part in this leg of the project including: Mike Funk, Mareike Duffing-Romero, Lad Akins, Richard Nemeth, Elizabeth Smith, Norm Gustafson, Kim Gillespie, Jack Downes, Gabby Magalski, Bonnie Barnes, Marcia Taylor, Bernard Castillo, and Kynoch Reale-Munroe. Funding for this work was provided by a grant through the EPSCOR program of the University of the Virgin Islands and housing support was generously provided by REEF members Bill Scurry and Janice Erlbaum.

The Blue Ocean Institute's Sea Stories

The ocean is a muse to many artists. REEF members have also felt that tug of creativity and sent us amazing pictures as well as commentaries from their travels. Being a part of REEF means sharing the underwater world that we all love which is why we'll be sharing with you the interesting pictures and experiences our members send us. We'd like to do this monthly, but need you to participate so email us your fun or interesting Fish Tales so we can publish them in the next REEF-in-Brief! Who knows . . . we may even choose your unique picture/story for placement in our annual news letter soon to be printed for 2008.   Please email them to intern@reef.org  titled ENews. 

We also would like to share with our members a place to publish and read YOUR stories about ocean issues.

"Sea Stories, an online journal of creative writing and art about the world's oceans sponsored by Blue Ocean Institute, features contributions by ocean-lovers from all backgrounds and walks of life - writers, artists, educators, students, scientists, fishers, conservationists, explorers, and just regular people. Educators are invited to use Sea Stories in the classroom or as a publishing opportunity for yourself or your students. Join us in celebrating all things oceanic!"

Visit www.seastories.org!

If you have a fun or interesting Fish Tales you would like to share with REEF and its 30,000 members, please email them to intern@reef.org titled ENews. We'd love to publish your experiences in the next REEF-in-Brief!

REEF.org Web Tip

Can't remember your REEF number?

Use the lost member number lookup feature on the new Website.

REEF Divers Net Quite a Find

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A derelict gill net found by REEF surveyors in the Puget Sound. The net had ensnared dozens of animals and was damaging habitat. Photo by Pete Naylor.
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A lingcod entangled in the gill net, a result of "ghost fishing". Photo by Pete Naylor.
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The net was draped over rare cloud sponges. Photo by Pete Naylor.

Last Summer during a dive with Pacific Adventure Charters in Hood Canal, Washington, a group of REEF Pacific Advanced Assessment Team (AAT) surveyors came across something unexpected. As part of REEF’s funded project with The Russell Family Foundation, the team’s goal was to look for invasive tunicates and do REEF marine life surveys on several previously unsurveyed sites. While they found the invasive tunicates they were looking for, they also found a derelict fishing net that was damaging fragile habitat and ensnaring marine life.

AAT members, Pete Naylor, Steve Rubin and Janna Nichols found the abandoned gill net on a wall, amid large growths of Cloud Sponge (Aphrocallistes vastus), one of Puget Sound’s rarest and longest lived animals and an invertebrate species monitored in the REEF Pacific Northwest Volunteer Survey Project program. As the name implies, cloud sponges form pale, irregular cloud-shaped colonies, which can be more than ten feet across and seven feet high. These colonies attach to rocky surfaces and provide complex habitat for a variety of marine species. The nearly invisible monofilament derelict gill net was draped over and around the cloud sponge colonies, clearly causing damage. Dungeness crab and other invertebrates lay dead and entangled in the net’s folds.

Concerned by what she saw that day, Janna contacted the Northwest Straits Commission, a regional marine conservation initiative that runs a derelict gear removal program. Given the net’s direct threat to the safety of divers and that it was causing clear harm to marine life and habitat, the Commission made removing the gill net in Dewatto Bay a high priority. After an initial search in the Fall 2007 that failed to locate the net, the net was successfully located with the help of REEF members Keith Clements and Rob Holman. Trained commercial divers removed the net from the fragile cloud sponge reef earlier this month. It was clear during the removal operation that the net had swung in the current and scraped much of the rocky outcrop clean of marine life. But cloud sponge colonies were still present on either side. The initial REEF survey conducted last summer will now serve as a baseline for future monitoring. A REEF team, including Janna, Pete and Steve are planning to revisit the site in May to note any signs of recovery.

Jeff June, the Initiative’s derelict gear program lead commented about the collaborative effort: “This particular net removal effort shows the importance of the REEF divers participation in these types of projects. We would have probably never known there was a gillnet in the vicinity of these amazing sponges had the REEF folks not been monitoring the site.”

Janna made this observation about encountering the net: “From a diver's point of view, it's really shocking to see firsthand just how much marine life a derelict net can snare and kill. We spend hours underwater all around the waters of Washington State, and are specifically attracted to viewing and protecting all the amazing wildlife we can on each dive. Seeing trapped and dead or dying fish and invertebrates is a real shame. Derelict gear not only poses hazards to all the marine life they continue to snare and kill, but to divers as well, because of the entanglement hazards.”

If you are a Pacific Northwest diver, you can report derelict fishing gear in Washington through the WDFW Sighting Form. Other states have similar programs.

REEF News Tidbits for July

  • One female space just opened up on the upcoming Baja Mexico Field Survey aboard the Don Jose Liveaboard. This trip has been sold out for a while and we don't expect the space to last long.  The trip begins and ends in La Paz and runs October 5-12.  Check out the trip flyer to find out more.  Contact Jeanne from Baja Expeditions at 800-843-6967 or travel@bajaex.com.
  • Get your limited edition "It's All About the Fish" t-shirt today.  Available in 4 tropical colors.  Order yours today from the REEF Store.  Also available from the REEF Store is the brand new 2nd Edition of Coastal Fish Identification field guide by Paul Humann.  This book covers species found from California to Alaska and the new edition includes more than 30 new species and over 70 new photographs.  Click here to order your copy.

REEF Gearing Up For Another Year of Nassau Grouper Aggregation Research

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Approximately 3,500 Nassau grouper, an endangered species, gather off Little Cayman Island during winter full moons to reproduce. Photo by Scott Heppell.
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A light trap deployed underwater in Little Cayman to study the recruitment of larval Nassau grouper.

REEF scientists, volunteers and collaborators will be in the Cayman Islands next month for the 8th year of the Grouper Moon Project. Thanks to a three-year grant awarded last year by the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts, REEF has greatly expanded the critical conservation research conducted as part of this study of Nassau grouper spawning aggregations. We will have teams on all three of the Cayman Islands conducting field research as part of the project, “The reproductive biology of remnant Nassau grouper stocks: implications for Cayman Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA) management”. The Little Cayman team will continue the long-term visual monitoring of the large aggregation located there. Work on Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac will focus on studying the remnant aggregations that remain on these islands after years of fishing. There is currently a harvest ban in effect for all aggregations in the islands. This ban is set to be lifted in 2011 unless the extension of the protections are warranted.

Despite logistical complications, weather anomalies and difficulties locating fish, the Grouper Moon Project had a successful year of field-work in 2008. The team conducted preliminary work on Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman, tagging Nassau grouper with pinger acoustic tags and then installing hydrophone arrays to track the movements of those tagged individuals. Studies were also conducted to better understand the patterns of recruitment by larval and juvenile Nassau grouper to the islands. In addition, members of our team attended major scientific conferences both nationally and internationally, and presented aspects of our research and findings to date.

In the Winter of 2002, REEF launched the Grouper Moon Project with a ground breaking expedition to observe the Nassau grouper spawning aggregation off the western tip of Little Cayman and to develop a protocol for monitoring their numbers and activity at the site. Since that first year, REEF has coordinated annual efforts to monitor and study the Little Cayman Nassau grouper aggregation. The project has grown in scope to include an ambitious acoustic tagging research project, juvenile habitat and genetics studies, and early results have been published in the scientific literature. This work is a collaboration with the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment and researchers from Oregon State University.

To find out more, visit the Grouper Moon Project webpage.

REEF Regional Lionfish Workshops in Georgia and Mexico

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REEF's Special Project and Lionfish expert, Lad Akins, demonstrates collecting techniques during a Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary workshop.
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Director of the Cozumel Marine Park, Ricardo Lozano, explains the lionfish response plan to media.

As part of REEF's efforts to increase awareness about the invasive lionfish, train removal teams and develop regional response plans, REEF recently conducted a series of workshops, talks and lionfish removals in partnership with the Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary (GRNMS) in Georgia and the Cozumel Marine Park in Mexico. Combined the two projects held in July 2009 included 15 talks to more than 370 people.

The Gray's Reef project included a meeting of Sanctuary personnel from the Florida Keys, Flower Garden Banks and Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuaries, working to develop a regional coordinated response plan. Sanctuary and REEF staff also conducted two days of lionfish collecting and handling dives, including the removal of 54 lionfish averaging almost 30 cm from sites just outside the GRNMS boundaries. Talks to the general public, Sanctuary Advisory Council and Georgia Law Enforcement working groups also helped increase awareness of the lionfish issue and conveyed removal plans for the region.

Immediately following the Gray's Reef project, a week-long series of workshops and talks were held in Mexico to initiate development of the Mexican regional lionfish response plan focusing on the Yucatan. An initial day-long meeting included over 40 representatives, including national environmental regulators, regional marine park directors, conservation and science groups, academia and the Mexican Navy. Presentations and discussions resulted in the development of an early detection/rapid response plan. The plan was then unveiled in numerous public and key user group talks including those to dive operators, fishermen, medical/first responders and university groups. Training dives with Marine Park staff also resulted in the removal of 3 juvenile lionfish from local Cozumel reefs.

To find out more about REEF's Lionfish Research Program and to report a lionfish or other non-native fish sighting, visit the REEF Lionfish Webpage.

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Trips For Your Lifelist

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The strange-looking shortnose batfish is one of the critters you might find in Dominica. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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Topside discoveries like this flamingo colony in Bonaire (and amazing waterfalls in Dominica) can be found on both these trips. Photo by Kai Kane.

Want to add a few new species to your life list? Look no further than Dominica and Bonaire. These islands both offer some unique treasures and are sure to please every level of diver as well as beauty above water for your non-diving companions. REEF is leading Field Surveys to both of these beautiful islands this year, and we invite you to join us! The Dominica field survey trip is April 17 - 24, and Bonaire takes place September 25 – October 2.

The natural beauty of Dominica includes some of the most enchanting topography both above and below the waterline, with several waterfalls and hiking trails to be explored on one of the least developed islands in the Caribbean. The diving is also spectacular, and on our last trip here seven years ago flying gurnards, short-nose batfish, fringed filefish, blackfin snapper, harlequin pipefish and reef scorpionfish were all documented by our keen-eyed surveyors. REEF Board member Heather George is leading the trip this year, and she will help you look for these species and many more.

Few dive sites in the world can provide 100 fish species on a single dive - Bonaire is one of these special places. During our survey week here, you are likely to add at least 5 or more new species to your life list, no matter what your current REEF level. Trip Leader, Jessie Armacost, lived in Bonaire and taught Fish ID there for 7 years. She will help you find clingfish, pikeblennies, maculated flounders, medusa blennies, semi-scaled gobies and many other fish that are rarely found elsewhere. During group sessions you will learn where to look for viper morays, ringed blennies as well as popular fish like spotted drums and seahorses. The diving is easy with great accessible shore dives as well as easy close-by boat dives, and the trip will be particularly exciting this year during the annual coral spawn, when the reef is charged with sexual energy day and night.

Join us on one of these exciting weeks full of fish ID, friendship, new discoveries and great memories! Our full field survey schedule, trip details, and sign up information can be found here.

GAFC in the Northeast - One of the Biggest!

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One hundred and fourteen divers participated in the one-day GAFC NE event.

For the ninth year in a row, New England's SCUBA-diving community hosted the largest single-day Great Annual Fish Count (GAFC) event. On July 24, 2010, a stunning 104 divers conducted 114 fish surveys at 13 locations around Cape Ann and southern Maine. After conducting their surveys, divers gathered at Stage Fort Park in Glouster, MA, for fun, food, and prizes (over $8,000 in prizes were donated for the event). The event was coordinated by active REEF volunteers, Holly Martel Bourbon and Bob Michelson, and was sponsored by the New England Aquarium Dive Club. With support from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, REEF expanded the Fish Survey Project to the Northeast in 2001 and participation has been slowly growing ever since. We are currently working to increase the frequency that divers conduct surveys, taking it beyond the one-day GAFC event. Regional survey and training materials are currently being revised, and a companion invertebrate monitoring program for the area is also now in development.

Putting It to Work: Who’s Using REEF Data, December 2010

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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 researcher from Florida State University requested data from sites along the west coast of Florida to evaluate how fish species richness is influenced by the presence of certain grouper species.

- A scientist from the Smithsonian Institute is mapping the distribution and co-occurance of garden eel species in the western Atlantic.

- A researcher from NOAA Fisheries is looking at the species distribution of Gray Snapper.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub