REEF Data Used To Evaluate the Status of Big Fish and Fisheries in the Caribbean

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Nassau grouper is one of 20 predatory fish species that were evaluated in a recently published study in the scientific journal PLoS One. Photo by Selina Heppell.
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Data collected by REEF volunteer surveyors from 86 sites in 22 Caribbean nations were used in the analysis. Stallings 2009.

Data collected as part of the REEF Volunteer Survey Project were the basis of a recent publication evaluating the effect of human population size on coral reef fish populations. The sweeping study, conducted by researcher Dr. Chris Stallings of Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, revealed that sharks, barracuda and other large predatory fishes disappear on Caribbean coral reefs as human populations rise, endangering the region’s marine food web and ultimately its reefs and fisheries. The study, which used data collected by REEF volunteers at sites in 22 Caribbean nations over 15 years, demonstrates the power of volunteer and community research efforts by non-scientists. Data are often insufficient at region-wide scales to assess the effects of extraction in coral reef ecosystems of developing nations. The REEF citizen science project fills this gap by generating valid and needed data over large geographic areas over long time periods.

While other scientists working in the Caribbean have observed the declines of large predators for decades, the comprehensive work by Dr. Stallings documents the ominous patterns in far more detail at a much greater geographic scale than any other research to date. The study found that nations with more people have reefs with far fewer large fish because as the number of people increases, so does demand for seafood. Stallings said that although several factors -- including loss of coral reef habitats -- contributed to the general patterns, careful examination of the data suggests overfishing as the most likely reason for the disappearance of large predatory fishes across the region. He pointed to the Nassau grouper as a prime example. Once abundant throughout the Caribbean, Nassau grouper have virtually disappeared from many Caribbean nearshore areas and are endangered throughout their range.

Dr. Stalling's article on the study, “Fishery-Independent Data Reveal Negative Effect of Human Population Density on Caribbean Predatory Fish Communities,” was published in the May 6, 2009 issue of the journal PLoS One. The paper is available for download here.

To find out more about how REEF Volunteer Survey Project data have been used by scientists and government agencies, visit the Publications page on the REEF Website.

Reports From the Field - 2009 Bermuda Field Survey

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Thirteen lucky REEF members joined Anna and Ned Deloach, Judie Clee, and Chris Flook for a Field Survey to remember in Bermuda.
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The beautiful Puddingwife, one of the largest wrasse species in the western Atlantic. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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Yellowhead Wrasse in Bermuda show unique coloration patterns. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
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A teeny tiny, baby Bermuda Chub found under floating Sargassum. Photo by Ned DeLoach.

Over eight years ago, REEF expanded its flagship Fish Survey Project into Bermuda. Since then, local surveyors have contributed over 2500 surveys to the sighting database! In October, thirteen volunteers joined local REEF hosts Judie Clee and Chris Flook for a delightfully full schedule. After two extended survey dives each day, we were treated to a night snorkel and picnic to watch glowworms, a slideshow and dinner at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, a private, guided tour of the nature preserve on Nonsuch Island, and a reception and presentations by the scientists from BREAM (Bermuda Reef Ecosystem Assessment and Mapping Programme). The week was topped off with a grand finale dinner and behind the scenes tour of the Bermuda Aquarium and Zoological Park.

One of the best things about fishwatching is seeing something new. Many areas have endemic fish and experienced fishwatchers know that fish coloration and behaviors can vary a lot from region to region. We arrived prepared to add Bermuda Bream, Bermuda Halfbeaks and Gwelly jacks to our lifelists but found ourselves equally thrilled to see the Bermuda version of the Yellowhead wrasse, called the Redback (for its distinctive red coloration) and the brilliant jewel colors of their Puddingwives. Between dives, Chris Flook, from the Bermuda Aquarium, filled buckets with rafts of Sargassum seaweed and pointed out juvenile chubs, crabs, shrimps, pipefish and frogfish. Judie’s expert eye helped us sort out the damselfish puzzle. We dived several times in an area where the Emerald Parrotfish was once quite common but has not been seen for many years. Our possible sightings have generated some excitement and Judie and Chris are investigating further. Our total species count for the week was 115 and included a rare sighting of a Conchfish.

Thanks go out to Triangle Diving for the welcome BBQ (and Lionfish hors d’oeuvres) and their excellent diving services. And very special thanks to the Bermuda Zoological Society for funding REEF in Bermuda and for underwriting many of our special activities of the week. We’ll be back – and promise that it won’t take eight years!

As this report reminds us -- REEF trips are more than just your average dive vacation. Be sure to check out the REEF trip 2010 schedule, which can be found online at www.REEF.org/fieldsurveys/schedule. We encourage you to join us on our adventures in 2010 and Take a Trip the Counts!

REEF Volunteers Conduct Annual Expedition to Monterey Bay

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The REEF team aboard the Monterey Express.
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Long-time Pacific REEF surveyor and AAT member, John Wolfe, reviews sightings with Keith Rootsaert.
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Stunning underwater habitat at the outer pinnacles near Carmel Bay in the MBNMS. The bottom is covered with invertebrates, like the colorful Purple Hydrocoral. Great fish life too, like the gopher rockfish resting on the rock. Photo by Chad King/MBNMS.

Members of REEF's Pacific Advanced Assessment Team (AAT) and other active surveyors gathered in central California earlier this month to survey fish and invertebrate life in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS). Twenty-two divers conducted over 140 REEF surveys at twelve sites during the week-long project. This was the 8th year that the coordinated expedition has been conducted, and the data collected serve as a valuable time-series of information on the status and trends of populations within the Sanctuary. The team was led by REEF Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens. Dr. Steve Lonhart, a lead scientist from the MBNMS, and Chad King from the MBNMS, also joined the group for the week to provide valuable local expertise.

In addition to this annual monitoring project, volunteers conduct REEF surveys year-round during their regular diving activities in the area. REEF surveys have been conducted in the Sanctuary since 1997, and to date, over 2,600 surveys have been submitted from the MBNMS in to the REEF database. Click here to see a current summary of REEF data from the MBNMS. The Sanctuary is home to many colorful fish and invertebrates and is a popular spot for sport diving. REEF data collected in the MBNMS are currently being analyzed to document changes in key rocky reef fish species. Projects like the annual MBNMS monitoring are a great way for active REEF volunteers to apply their skills and expertise. These projects are also just one more reason for REEF surveyors to improve their identification skills and increase their survey experience level.

A big thank you to the participating AAT members and other REEF volunteers, and to Dr. Steve Lonhart and Chad King for their participation and logistical support. We also greatly appreciate George Peterson and Justin Kantor from the Monterey Bay Aquarium for hosting our first evening seminar. Field support was provided by the Monterey Express; thanks to owner Tim Doreck and to Captain Phil Sammet for serving at the helm of our adventures. This project would not be possible without the financial support of an anonymous foundation.

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.

REEF Welcomes New Communications and Affiliate Program Manager

When University of Kansas graduate Keri Kenning joined REEF in August 2012 as a Marine Conservation Intern, Keys residents constantly reminded her, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” Five months, sixty dives, and zero lionfish stings later, Keri has abstained from clicking those ruby red heels together and returning to Kansas. She is staying at REEF headquarters in Key Largo as the new Communications and Affiliate Program Manager. Keri graduated in May 2012 from the University of Kansas with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and University Honors. She began snorkeling at 10, diving at 14, and has been a bona fide Critterwatcher from the start. As an undergraduate she lived in the Turks and Caicos Islands for a semester researching invasive lionfish and marine ecosystems. The Marine Conservation Internship was the perfect introduction to REEF programs and the diving community. As the Communications and Affiliate Program Manager, Keri writes press releases, manages social media pages, recruits Field Stations, and leads community outreach and special events. Welcome to the REEF Team, Keri!

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.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub