Grouper Spawning Aggregation Research Continues in 2010

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The Grouper Moon Project studies the spawning aggregations of the endangered Nassau grouper. Photo by Selina Heppell.
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Over 3,000 Nassau grouper aggregate at a site off Little Cayman Island during winter full moons. Photo by Scott Heppell.

Scientists and project volunteers from REEF and our partner institutions, the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment and Oregon State University, are getting ready for another year of the Grouper Moon Project. The team will be in the field for two weeks beginning on the full moon, January 30. 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.

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 2010 spawning season are 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. Watch future issues of REEF-in-Brief for field season results and what's next for the protection of spawning aggregations in the Cayman Islands as the current harvest ban is due to expire. To find out more about the Grouper Moon Project, visit the webpage http://www.reef.org/programs/grouper_moon

REEF Annual Report 2009 Released

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REEF Staff and Board members are proud to announce the release of our 2009 Annual Report. To view a PDF of the report online, click here. In this report, you will find updates on our membership, the Volunteer Fish Survey Project, regional activities, special projects (e.g. invasive lionfish and Grouper Moon), data use and publications, our upcoming plans, and finances. We are truly grateful for all your support that made 2009 such a success!

The Blue Heron Bridge -- A Dive Site to be Thankful For

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A school of cownose rays seen at the Blue Heron Bridge. Photo by Mike Phelan.
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Another great find at the bridge, a Northern Stargazer. Photo by Mike Phelan.

Some of the best dive sites for fishwatching are in the least obvious places. The Blue Heron Bridge in Palm Beach, Florida, is one such biological hotspot. This is a top dive destination for sighting unusual species that can be added to your lifelist. Mike Phelan, REEF Expert surveyor, and two other REEF members, often dive this site. The day before Thanksgiving, they were treated to quite a sight – a large school of Cownose Rays! This is a rare sighting in Florida, but it’s just another day at the Blue Heron Bridge. Some of the more unusual and recent sightings include the Blackwing Searobin, Roughtail Ray, Northern Stargazer, Orangespotted Blenny, Polkadot Batfish, and the Chain Pipefish. The bridge traverses a small island located in the inland waterway near the Lake Worth inlet. The dive sites consist of a variety of eco-niches such as sand, shell rubble, sea grass, algae hydroid fields, sailboat mooring lines and anchors and of course bridge pilings and concrete rubble. The Blue Heron Bridge has over 282 species recorded in the REEF database and the number is increasing monthly (click here to see the full list).

The actual dive site is a local county park named Phil Foster Park that is protected with a no-take ordinance. All dives are shore-based and must be timed with the high tide. The dive can be safely done by entering the water one hour before high tide and exiting one hour after high tide. Depths range from 8 -17 feet and the water is usually clear even if the off-shore ocean is rough. Remember to bring a dive flag. Many divers combine their Blue Heron trip with some local Jupiter off-shore diving to witness the Goliath grouper aggregations in August or September, Loggerhead, Green, and Leatherback turtle nesting during the spring or the Lemon shark aggregation in the winter. This is certainly a dive site to be thankful for!

Do you have a dive site story that you would like to share? Email us.

REEF in the Classroom

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We live in a small town called Nelson, in the mountains of British Columbia about 3 hours north of Spokane Washington. In the Fall I decided to take students to Belize to study reef systems and how they may be changing. The course is called "Coral Reef Studies in Belize " and 15 grade 11 & 12 high school students from LV Rogers Secondary signed up for the trip with the help of Island Expeditions from Vancouver. When I was researching the course objectives I came across REEF and realized it would be perfect to help us study the fish species that reside on reefs and indirectly gauge reef health. I also wanted students to be involved with some sort of real biological studies and contribute to science. When I first asked my "academic" students how many reef fish they knew the combined class came up with 5, with 2 species coming from the movie Nemo....

We used REEF website to get us acquainted with common fish ID and used the book series by Paul Humann for more in-depth work. By being able to download from the REEF website the highest frequency fish from exactly the area we were going everyone was motivated to learn. One assignment was to create a Fish ID tablet of Lighthouse and Half Moon Caye. One student created such a professional one that we laminated it and donated it the Belize Audubon society on the atoll for other amateur divers to use.

It amazed me that one day we were in snow to our knees and the next day kids were IDing fish and observing fish behviors on their first dive. From recognizing a measly 5 fish to closer to 50-70 species happened in just a few weeks, especially by using the quizzes on REEF.org. We worked with the Belize Audubon society and did surveys at some of their sites and everyone was really charged to complete and submit surveys..I was amazed that they even started to correct me daily on ID.

Endangered Nassau grouper in the Caymans will live to spawn another generation: an 11th hour ruling

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Findings from the Grouper Moon Project have led to an 11th hour ruling that will ensure continued protections for the endangered Nassau grouper. The seasonal fishing ban on Nassau grouper spawning aggregation sites in the Cayman Islands, which was set to expire in just a few days, has been extended for another eight years. The protections, which were initially enacted in 2003 and included an 8-year sunset clause, prohibit fishing for the species at spawning aggregation sites between November and March (the reproductive season). REEF has been working closely with the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment (DoE) since 2001 as part of the Grouper Moon Project to study Nassau grouper aggregations in the Cayman Islands and to determine how to best protect this iconic Caribbean reef species. Our research has focused on the west end aggregation site on Little Cayman, which supports one of the last great reproductive populations of this endangered species. REEF is extremely proud of our involvement in the Grouper Moon Project and we look forward to similar conservation victories in the years to come. Lessons learned in the Cayman Islands have benefited Nassau grouper conservation efforts throughout the Caribbean. Watch this 3-minute video to see spectacular footage of the aggregation and to learn more about the project.

Normally solitary and territorial, during the winter full moons Nassau grouper travel and group together to spawn. Due to the reliable timing and location of the spawning aggregations, plus the ease with which these relative loners can be caught while congregating by the hundreds and thousands to spawn, most known Caribbean aggregation sites have been fished to exhaustion. The ground-breaking research conducted as part of the Grouper Moon Project by scientists and volunteers from REEF, the DoE, and Oregon State University, led the DoE to recommend a set of actions necessary to recover and protect the species throughout the Cayman Islands. Actions include: implementing a closed season for Nassau grouper in all Cayman waters from November through March, permanently closing the aggregation sites to fishing year round (because these special places host aggregations of dozens of species throughout the year), and modifying existing catch limits for the species during other times of the year. The Cayman Islands Cabinet is currently reviewing these recommendations. While all those involved in the Grouper Moon Project are pleased that the Marine Conservation Board was able to take action prior to the expiration of the current ban, we are hopeful that Cabinet will enact permanent protections to ensure that there are Nassau grouper on coral reefs for generations to come.

The Grouper Moon Project has been supported in part by the Lenfest Ocean Program, the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, the NOAA International Coral Reef Conservation Program, Southern Cross Club, Little Cayman Beach Resort, Peter Hillenbrand, and REEF member contributions. We greatly appreciate all our members who have contributed financially to REEF to make this important work possible.

Great Annual Fish Count 2012

The 21st annual Great Annual Fish Count (GAFC) is rapidly approaching! Will you be participating? We encourage local shops, dive clubs, and other groups to organize an activity anytime during the month of July (and often training events in June). You can view events already scheduled, and add your own, by visiting www.fishcount.org.

The concept behind the GAFC is to not only accumulate large numbers of surveys during the month of July, but to introduce divers and snorkelers to Fishwatching and conducting REEF surveys. Interested groups can offer free fish ID classes, organize dive/snorkel days, and turn them into fun gatherings! To find out more, contact us at gafc@reef.org.

Release of Invasive Lionfish: A Guide to Control and Management

REEF is excited to announce the release of Invasive Lionfish: A Guide to Control and Management. Available as an e-book to view and/or download (formatted for desktop and mobile devices), this extensive manual was created to aid coastal managers and field workers in effectively managing the invasive lionfish problem. This best practices manual consists of chapters on control strategies, outreach and education plans, research, monitoring, legal considerations, and ideas for acquiring resources and vital partnerships from around the region. Invasive lionfish are a major ecological disaster causing wide-reaching negative impacts throughout the western Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. By utilizing examples provided in this guide, researchers and managers throughout the region will be well equipped to address the lionfish invasion.

This work would not have been possible without the collaborative efforts of NOAA, REEF, ICRI, the United Nations Environment Programme, Caribbean Environment Programme, SPAWRAC, and the 40+ participants of the 2010 Caribbean Regional Lionfish Workshop. This manual will be the first book in the new GCFI Special Publication Series. Authors include James Morris (NOAA), Dayne Buddo (University of the West Indies, Jamaica), Stephanie Green (Simon Frasier University), Ricardo Lozano (CONANP, Mexico), and Lad Akins (REEF).

2013 Summer Lionfish Derby Series Announced

REEF Board Member, Peter Hughes, with a haul of lionfish at a Derby.

We are excited to announce the 2013 Summer Lionfish Derby Series! Five years ago, REEF began hosting lionfish derbies throughout Florida and the Caribbean to address the lionfish invasion. A lionfish derby is a single day team competition to collect as many lionfish as possible. Teams collect lionfish using nets or spears while SCUBA diving or free diving, and prizes are awarded to the teams with the most lionfish, biggest lionfish, and smallest lionfish caught. Not only do these events reduce lionfish populations, but they also increase education and awareness, provide samples for research, train divers in safe removal techniques, and help develop the market for lionfish as a food fish. To register or learn more, please visit www.REEF.org/lionfish/derbies. 2013 Derby dates and locations are: June 22 - Green Turtle Cay Bahamas; July 27 - Fort Lauderdale, FL; August 17 - Palm Beach, FL; September 14 - Key Largo, FL.

Putting It To Work: Who's Using REEF Data, December 2013

REEF Data from Hawaii are being used to evaluate ecosystem services models for coral reefs. Photo by David Andrew.

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:

-Fisheries scientist are using data on Hogfish from Florida, Puerto Rico, and the USVI to evaluate population status and help set effective catch limits as part of the US Fisheries Management Council's stock assessment.

- A scientist from RSMAS at the University of Miami is evaluating the status of Caribbean predatory fish species, including Gray Snapper, Barracuda, and Goliath Grouper.

- An environmental researcher at University of Miami is assessing biodiversity indexes as a measure of effectiveness with ongoing septic tank replacement and canal improvement projects in the Florida Keys.

- A PhD student from University of Hawaii is using data from Maui Nui to conduct coral reef ecosystem services models.

- A researcher from University of Victoria is using data from Washington and British Columbia to evaluate community richness values for temperate rocky reefs.

The Faces of REEF: Herb Gruenhagen

REEF volunteer trainer, Herb Gruenhagen. Photo by Karen Morgan.
Herb with a jellyfish. Photo by Charles Tu.
Photo by Marc Pidcoe.
Sarcastic Fringehead. Photo courtesy New World Publications.
One of Herb's monthly ID classes, held at Ocean Enterprises in San Diego.
The rarely seen Specklefin Midshipman, found and photographed by Herb Gruenhagen.

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 Herb Gruenhagen. Herb has been a REEF member since 2001, and has conducted 208 surveys (all in his home state of California). He is a member of the Pacific Coast Advanced Assessment Team as an Expert Surveyor. Here's what Herb had to say about REEF:

When and how did you first volunteer with REEF or become a REEF member?

In July 2000, the San Diego Ocean Foundation sunk a Canadian Destroyer as an artificial reef. I was one of several divers who performed both fish and invertebrate surveys, using transects, quadrats, and REEF Roving Surveys. When the San Diego Oceans Foundation decided to become a REEF Field Station, I volunteered to become a volunteer REEF instructor. I have been teaching a REEF class each month in San Diego since that time.

What are some of the highlights of your local diving?

I dive the La Jolla Shores most of the time, and it is always changing. There are the resident species, the transients, and the seasonal ones. The resident species will always be there no matter what. The transients can be the many pelagic species that the currents bring in. For example, a while back, we are seeing several different species of jellyfish and the leopard sharks are returning to the warmer water shallows near the Marine Room. The seasonal species are really the special surprises. During the early spring the nudibranchs come out to start their mating, and in the winter, we have a ‘white’ Christmas with all the Market squid schooling, mating, and laying their white finger-like egg cases. Other special surprises can be molas, baby grey whales, midshipman, mantis shrimp, wolf-fishes, and even Finescale Triggerfishes.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned doing a REEF fish survey?

Doing REEF surveys really highlights the many different variations that a given species can take on. Being a REEF surveyor gives you the ability to recognize new species from common species, and all the many variations within the same species. Paying attention to all the details is really important to getting a good ID. I try to get a good image of the fish and ask for help when I’m not sure.

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

After all the years of teaching the courses, I’m just really glad to see local divers coming to my class to expand their knowledge of the local marine life, whether they do one survey or many surveys. I love watching the learning process and expanding the students minds of the many wonderful forms of marine life we have here to enjoy and need to perserve for future generations.

Do you have a favorite local (or not) REEF field station or dive shop?

The REEF Field station is the San Diego Oceans Foundation, but the facilities that we use is Ocean Enterprises in San Diego. Ocean Enterprises has been very supportive over the years and everyone really appreciates the use of their classrooms, computer and projector and its central location in the city. Thank you Ocean Enterprises for your many years of support.

What is the most fascinating fish encounter you’ve experienced? What is your favorite?

Well, of course photographing species new to science or that is rare or very uncommon is a highlight. I have photographed several fishes and nudibranchs that fall into one of those categories. My most fascinating fish that I have seen is the Specklefin Midshipman, Porichthys myriaste. We see many juvenile Plainfin Midshipman in the winter, but the Specklefin were quite a find! One of my favorite fishes is the Sarcastic Fringehead. They are one of the few fishes that see you as a threat and will interact with divers and their photo gear. They will charge out of their breeding holes (ok, we are talking about a 6” fish) at the camera lens, thinking they are seeing ‘another’ fringehead in the lens. They will bite all your cables and your finger and charge back into their hole. They will also interact with each other and fearlessly defend their breeding holes by opening their mouths at each other beyond the stretching point.

Herb teaches free Southern California Marine Life ID classes the third Wednesday of each month. Join him!

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub