REEF Sponsors Grouper Education Workshop

Educators learned a Food Web Game classroom activity that is part of the Grouper Education Program curriculum. REEF Educator, Todd Bohannon, demonstrates how the food web connections are represented by yarn strung between different members of the coral reef community.
Mr. Bradley Johnson, from Cayman Islands Department of Environment, presenting information to educators during the Grouper Education Workshop on Cayman Brac.
Two students participating in the Grouper Education Program.

On December 3rd and 5th, REEF and the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment (DOE) held free educator workshops on Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac in the Cayman Islands. The professional development workshops presented the Grouper Education Program, a marine sciences curriculum for intermediate/elementary and high school students that was developed as part of the Grouper Moon Project. Nineteen teachers from 12 schools participated, including 2 schools from the Bahamas. Participants received the materials and resources necessary for successfully implementing the Grouper Education Program in their classrooms. This exciting project focuses on bringing the Nassau Grouper into classrooms through lesson plans and interactive live-feed video sessions that connect classrooms with Grouper Moon scientists in the field.

The curriculum presents a multi-faceted view of Nassau Grouper, in which students create their own understanding of this important fish. Key curricular concepts include the historical role of the species as an artisanal fishery throughout the Caribbean region, the grouper’s value as a keystone predator and its impact on local reef health, its role in today’s tourism-based economy in the Cayman Islands and throughout the Caribbean, and the conservation challenges facing Nassau Grouper given steep declines in populations. In addition to classroom lessons, the program includes live-feed video sessions that take place at the Grouper Moon Project research site on Little Cayman, bringing real-world field science into the classroom.

The Grouper Education Program is supported by a grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. In-kind logistics and technical support for the workshops was provided by Cayman Airways, Brac Reef Beach Resort, and LIME. The program curriculum was developed to complement the research and scientific efforts of the Grouper Moon Project. Grouper Moon educator, Todd Bohannon, along with Grouper Moon scientists Brice Semmens, Ph.D. (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), Christy Pattengill-Semmens, Ph.D. (REEF), and Mr. Bradley Johnson (DOE), have led the educational effort. Activities were developed in consultation with teachers at Cayman Prep on Grand Cayman, Verity Redrup and Brenda Bryce, and Cynthia Shaw, author of the youth fictional book, Grouper Moon. To find out more about the Grouper Moon Project, visit www.REEF.org/groupermoonproject.

New REEF Ray Troll Shirt and Other New Store Additions

If you haven't checked out the online REEF Store recently, now is a great time to do some shopping. It's a great place to get field ID reference guides, REEF survey materials, REEF gear, and lionfish field gear. We have added several new items recently, including:

- Ray Troll's "Dive Bar" shirt with REEF logo, click here

- Lionfish 3-D Puzzle, Lionfish Plush, and Lionfish Phone Case, click here

- New Underwater Survey Paper, including an extended list version for the Caribbean and new paper for the Central Indo-Pacific, click here

- Expanded and Revised 4th Edition of Reef Fish Identification- Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, click here

2014 Annual Report Released

We are proud to release REEF's 2014 Annual Report, reviewing accomplishments from our ocean conservation and education programs. Click here to view the Annual Report. In the report, we highlight many achievements and successes in 2014, such as:

  • 12 young adults participating in the Marine Conservation Internship Program
  • Launching the Explorers Program for visiting group to learn about marine science through hands-on education
  • Hosting 24 online "Fishinars" serving over 1,300 members
  • Collecting 10,463 surveys through the Volunteer Fish Survey Project
  • Fulfilling 18 requests for data files from REEF's Survey Project database
  • Developing a new Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean region for the Survey Project
  • Coordinating derbies that removed 2,814 invasive lionfish and supporting 12 partner organizations to host REEF Sanctioned Derbies throughout the invaded region, with 224 participants removing an additional 6,684 lionfish
  • Hosting live-from-the-field web chats with Caymanian students from 18 classrooms about the importance of Nassau Grouper

REEF was founded in 1990, out of growing concern for the health of the marine environment and the desire to provide ocean enthusiasts with ways to actively contribute to improved understanding and protection of marine environments. Looking back on more than two decades of hard work, REEF’s impact is remarkable. The most important part of this grassroots organization has always been the members who make it possible. Whether you’ve been with REEF since it was founded, joined in somewhere along the way, or just became a member this year, we are profoundly grateful the time, skills and financial resources you give to make such a significant difference in marine conservation.

The Faces of REEF: Alex Brett

Alex braving the snow to go diving!
The lovable Lumpfish. Photo by Jason Feick.

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 Alex Brett, a REEF member since 2014. Since joining last year, Alex has conducted 27 surveys, almost all in the Northeast (NE) region. Here's what he had to say about REEF:

How did you first hear about REEF?

I first heard about REEF at Boston Sea Rovers during a presentation where the invertebrate monitoring program was being unveiled for the New England area. I had been involved in a lot of benthic invertebrate survey work in college, so the idea of adding science to my normal dives was particularly appealing.

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

I feel that the REEF programs are valuable for two equally important reasons. First off, the data that are produced are invaluable for understanding trends in ocean ecosystems. Recreational volunteer divers can collect far more data than most researchers could hope to achieve. Second, I believe that citizen science programs like REEF are invaluable because of how they engage people in marine science. By inspiring divers to become involved in marine science, REEF helps people form a stronger connection to the ocean and makes them more likely to speak up and take action on marine environmental issues.

Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there?

I live on the coast of Maine, and I dive there year-round. I’ve dove many places around the world and it’s still one of my favorite areas to dive. The rugged rocky coast makes for some wonderfully dramatic topography underwater and our high tidal currents bring an awesome diversity of invertebrate life. One of my favorite places to dive in Maine is a spot, about 20 miles offshore, called Mount Desert Rock. The visibility is usually spectacular and a breeding colony of grey seals make for some entertaining dive companions.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

Too many possibilities! I definitely can’t pick just one. I love all nudibranchs, particularly those in the genus Flabellina, like the Red-gilled Nudibranch. Lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus) are also pretty incredible, with their goofy face and fins modified into a suction disc.

Is there a fish or marine invertebrate you haven’t seen yet diving, but would like to?

I would love to see an Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) while diving. I’ve seen them at the surface many times, but they are such a unique critter I can’t quite imagine encountering one underwater. One of the things I love about diving is that you never quite know what you’re going to run into while you’re out there.

REEF's 2016 Lionfish Derby Series

REEF is continuing to lead the charge on combating invasive lionfish! The 2016 Lionfish Derby Series is just around the corner and it’s going to be bigger than ever.

For those who are not familiar with REEF’s Lionfish Derbies, they are competitions where divers and snorkelers compete to bring in the most lionfish in a single day. There are cash prizes for the teams who land the most lionfish, the largest lionfish and the smallest. REEF hosted the first Lionfish Derby in 2009, making this our 8th year of derbies. Last year over 1,000 lionfish were brought in as part of the series and over 16 thousand lionfish have been removed by participants since the first derby in 2009.

The annual derbies are planned in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Key Largo. This year, we are excited to be adding a fourth derby to the series in Sarasota, partnering with Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and ZooKeeper LLC.

To learn more about lionfish, visit www.REEF.org/lionfish, and to see all the details and register for the Derby Series, visit www.REEF.org/lionfish/derbies. We also have a REEF Sanctioned Derby program in which REEF helps others organize and conduct safe and effective derbies by providing tools, templates and promotion. Find out more at www.REEF.org/lionfish/events.

Putting It To Work: New Study Documents Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease

A healthy Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), an important predator in the kelp forests of the US and Canadian west coast. Photo by Janna Nichols.
A Sunflower Sea Star that has succumbed to wasting disease. Photo by Janna Nichols.
Green Sea Urchin populations have increased in areas where Sunflower Sea Stars have declined. Photo by Janna Nichols.

Sea star wasting disease has devastated sea star populations on the West coast from Mexico to Alaska. The disease broke out in 2013, causing massive death of several species of sea stars. Infected animals develop lesions that eat away tissue, with limbs dropping off as the animals die. The disease has been linked to a virus, although environmental factors may also be involved.

A new study, published last week in the scientific journal, PLoS ONE, presents an analysis of REEF survey data on several asteroid species collected by divers in the Salish Sea over the last 10 years. The Salish Sea is a Canadian / United States transboundary marine ecosystem, and world-wide hotspot for temperate asteroid species diversity with a high degree of endemism.

The results showed that some species were hit hard, while others increased in number. Populations of Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), an important keystone predator in the region, dropped dramatically after the beginning of the epidemic. Several other sea star species, including the Spiny Pink Star (Pisaster brevispinus) also declined. Numbers of the less-common Leather Star (Dermasterias imbricata) and two species of sea urchin, which are prey for sea stars, increased after 2013.

The virus outbreak continues, and will have lasting effects on the ecosystem. Sunflower Sea Stars have effectively disappeared from the Salish Sea, the study concludes. Likely as a result, numbers of urchins have increased, which in turn will lead to more browsing on kelp. As a result, study co-author, Dr. Joe Gaydos, and his colleagues are currently in discussions with the National Marine Fisheries Service to get the Sunflower Sea Star listed as a “species of concern.”

The paper, titled "Devastating Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease on Subtidal Asteroids", is available online here. Another study published earlier this year in the journal, PeerJ, used the REEF data to evaluate the potential trophic impacts of the seastar decline, as seen in the increase in sea urchins. That paper is availble here. View the entire list of all scientific publications that have included REEF data and projects at www.REEF.org/db/publications.

The Faces of REEF: Dennis Bensen

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 Dennis Bensen, member since 2001. Dennis has conducted just over 600 surveys, and is active in several of REEF's surveying regions, including his now home of Hawaii, the western tropical Pacific, and the Tropical Western Atlantic. He is also one of our most active REEF Trip participants, having been on 19 Field Surveys (so far, with more to come!). Here's what Dennis had to say about REEF:

How did you first hear about REEF? I learned to dive when I was 47 years old in 1997. Soon afterward I knew I would pursue the PADI master diver certification. In doing so one needs five specialty courses and one of them that I choose was fish ID. I took it in Bonaire and I was taught by an American marine biologist dive master, who being pregnant at the time, could only snorkel. After a slide show on fish ID we went on a snorkel. She pointed to the fish and I dove down for closer look then back up to her to give her my answer. For the second dive she gave me paper to use. After we finished the second dive she told me we could submit the results to REEF. I didn't feel ready. After that trip I went home with the REEF packet, read up on the organization, and signed up for my first REEF field survey taught by Paul Human in Puerto Rico. And that was it, I never looked back. I actually feel like I am missing something when I dive and do not survey.

Have you been on a REEF survey trip, what was your trip highlight? I could fill up a book with the answer to this one. To date, I have been on 19 REEF Field Survey Trips! Most of them in either Cozumel or Hawaii, where I now live. My most recent REEF Trip was on the Palau Aggressor. This trip was a real eye opener! The Central Indo Pacific region has a huge numbers of species. The ID paper is three times the size what we use here in Hawaii. You are busy, busy, busy from the minute you enter the water. There are fish in this region that are also in Hawaii, but nowhere near the majority of what there is to see, so you are learning, learning, learning. I owe a lot to my dive buddy Pam Wade, and trip leader Christy Semmens, who taught me a lot.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member? This is an easy one. It is the people – whether they are Board members or office staff and volunteers or divers on Field Survey Trips. I have done surveys with many of the Board members and original members of the staff: Lad, Paul, Ned and Anna, Christy and Brice, and Janet (Camp) as well as staff Jane, Nancy, Amy, and Janna. I miss not working the REEF booth at “Beneath the Sea” with Martha or Lad (before moving to Hawaii I lived in New York). Beyond this, there is a host of divers too numerous to mention that have taught me so much and with whom I share a love of diving and recording the fish we see on those dives. Not to mention all those great trip farewell dinners.

In you opinion, what is the most important aspect of REEF’s projects and programs? The data that is collected, the integrity of that data, and the usefulness and research that this data will be used in. It is my own small way of giving back to the preservation and conservation of the oceans we dive in. Diving is such a huge part of my enjoyment of life and to think I can give something back, however small that might be, is very fulfilling and satisfying to me.

Do I dive close to where I live and what is the best part of diving there? As I said I now live in Hawaii. I moved here about 2 years ago to the Big Island of Hawaii, mainly because the best diving in the state is on the west coast of the big island. Honokohau harbor is only 10 minutes from my house and I try to dive out of that marina at least once per month, but I prefer to dive up north on the Kohala Coast. The Kohala Divers dive shop up there often runs a one tank afternoon dive. This is perfect for me. I do not need to get up early, I am, after all, in retirement. And with only one tank I am not too tired afterward. The dive finishes near dinner time so I often stop in Waiklloa and have dinner and a glass of wine at one of the fancy restaurants.

But besides that, and this is true of all diving in Hawaii, I can do it almost any day I want year round, something I for obvious reason did not do while living on Long Island, NY. On average, 25% of all fish here in our state are found only in Hawaii. And grey whale are around in the winter. The whales can be seen on all islands but the Kohala Coast of the big island and the South Shore of Maui form a bottle neck through which the whales must pass to move southward, often allowing for greater sightings and definitely more soundings (hearing them under water, always a thrill for me). I’d like to think of this as my own little corner of the worldwide oceans where my data will have an impact.

Plan Your 2018 Field Survey Trip

Don't miss out - book your 2018 REEF Trip space today.
Dive the Gardens of the Queen in Cuba.
Explore the oceans and mountains of Costa Rica.

Are you a diver or snorkeler looking to make a difference in the health of our oceans? If you haven't already, we hope you will make plans to join us on a REEF Trip in 2018. We have a great lineup of trips and a few spaces remain. You will participate in our citizen science programs, dive with like-minded individuals, and learn about the marine life around you. The full 2018 schedule is online (and keep an eye out for the 2019 schedule to be released this spring).

Here are 2018 trips that still have space:

Grenada, May 12-19, 2018 - More details

Bahamas Lionfish Research Trip, May 26 - June 2, 2018 - More details

Key Largo for REEF's 25th Anniversary, June 23-30, 2018 - More details

Costa Rica Land and Sea Eco-tour, July 14-21, 2018 - More details

Belize Research Expedition, August 18-25, 2018 - More details

Cuba Gardens of the Queen, August 18-25, 2018 - More details

St. Lucia, September 23-30, 2018 - More details

Eastern Caribbean, December 1-8, 2018 - More details

Cozumel, December 1-8, 2018 - More details

We maintain wait lists for full trips, so be sure to let us know if your desired destination is full. 2018 Trips that are already full: Hawaii, Thailand, Fiji, Brazil, Philippines, Cayman Brac, and Maldives.

Two Exotic Fish Species Removed from South Florida Waters

The Orangespine Unicornfish, native to the Indo-Pacific. Photo by Zach Ransom.
The Lagoon Triggerfish, native to the Indo-Pacific. Photo by Andy Dehart.
The Orangespine Unicornfish, collected from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The team of divers from REEF and Frost Science who removed the Lagoon Triggerfish. Photo by Pat Kelly.

In April 2018, two non-native marine fish species were live-captured from South Florida waters, including an Orangespine Unicornfish (Naso lituratus) in Key Largo and a Lagoon Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus) in Fort Lauderdale. Both fishes, native to a wide range in the tropical west Pacific, were collected separately through a collaborative effort between REEF, Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, and the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

These organized non-native species removals are part of an “Early Detection/Rapid Response” plan developed by REEF and the USGS, who have worked together on this initiative since 2008. The goal of the Early Detection/Rapid Response program is to remove non-native fishes as soon as possible after they are seen, before enough fish are introduced to develop a self-sustaining population which could negatively impact local marine ecosystems.

Both fishes were first spotted by citizen scientists who then reported the sightings to REEF. In early April, a group of divers from Eckerd College spotted the Orangespine Unicornfish while diving off of Key Largo during a REEF education program. Shortly after this, a second sighting of the same fish was reported by a local dive instructor, and a formal removal effort was organized to collect the fish. A team of four divers from REEF and Frost Science worked with a local volunteer to locate and live-capture the fish. The removal effort took place in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary under a special research permit.

“The Orangespine Unicornfish is a very common home aquarium fish and although the owners likely thought they were doing the right thing for the animal, they were not aware of the potential negative impact. It is extremely important that no pets are released into the wild.” acknowledges Andy Dehart, Vice President of Animal Husbandry for Frost Science.

Just a few weeks after the Orangespine Unicornfish was successfully captured, REEF received a report of another exotic species. This time, the sighting was a Lagoon Triggerfish, reported by a Fort Lauderdale resident who first spotted the fish while snorkeling off the beach near Sunrise Blvd. Recognizing the fish was not native to Florida waters, the citizen scientist reported this sighting to REEF and a plan to remove the fish was put into motion. It took six divers from REEF and Frost Science two trips to live-capture the elusive fish. This was the second record of the Lagoon Triggerfish in the United States mainland.

The Orangespine Unicornfish and Lagoon Triggerfish are the eighth and ninth non-native marine fish species removed through the Early Detection/Rapid Response program. To date there have been 37 non-native marine fish species documented off of Florida, and most of those sightings are thought to be aquarium fish that were released into the ocean by humans - the same occurrence that started the lionfish invasion of the tropical western Atlantic.

“No one saw the lionfish invasion coming, and we definitely don’t want to be surprised like that again,” said USGS Fish Biologist Pam Schofield. “Our research with lionfish shows that it is vitally important to remove non-native marine fishes as soon as we see them – before they have the chance to build up a population and spread like lionfish have done.”

USGS and REEF coordinate removals of exotic species and whenever possible the non-native fish are collected alive in partnership with Frost Science, to be displayed at public aquaria for educational purposes. Frost Science has an exhibit dedicated to exotic and invasive marine species including a Blotched Foxface Rabbitfish (Siganus unimaculatus) captured from Dania Beach in late 2016. After a quarantine period, the Orangespine Unicornfish and Lagoon Triggerfish will be added to the exhibit as well.

Anyone who sees a non-native marine fish species is encouraged to submit a report on REEF’s online Exotic Species Sightings Form, available at www.REEF.org/programs/exotic/report. Sightings are then directed to the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database.

REEF Lionfish Expeditions Lead to New Information

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Pterois volitans AKA lionfish. Photo by Tom DeMayo
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August Blackbeard's Lionfish Project.
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Hesperis dissection by Everton Joseph (College of the Bahamas), Tim Schwab (Nassau Guardian) and Marcian Tucker (College of the Bahamas)
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Juvenile lionfish. Photo by Tom DeMayo

Working with leading scientists, REEF's lionfish field work is paying off in valuable information needed to address this key issue. Information from the five Bahamas projects conducted thus far this year is being used to help determine the range and extent of the lionfish invasion, as well as to address key questions on age/ growth, reproduction, genetics, parasites and habitat preference.

To date, more than 400 fish have been collected and shipped to the NOAA research lab in Beaufort NC and more than 500 sightings have been documented in the Bahamas. Data on length, plumage and stomach content have been gathered in the field, and samples for genetics and age/growth studies have been shipped to researchers.  REEF has worked in close partnership with the College of the Bahamas, researchers at UNCW, and Salisbury University, and local dive operators Bruce Purdy and Stuart Cove in gathering and analyzing the data.

Interesting data to date include:

  • Average size:188mm
  • Most species: Pterois volitans (though there are some Pterois miles present also)
  • Stomach content: about 70 % fish and 30 % crustacean with the most prevalent prey families including basslets, gobies and shrimp. Also found in stomachs: whole crab, whole sand diver, jawfish with eggs still in its mouth, and juvenile grouper (including Nassau)
  • Genetics: It appears that there were at least 11 females involved in the original founding population. This number is up from previous indications of four fish.
  • Reproduction: Fish are reproducing year-round with age at reproduction as young as 1-2 years.
  • Habitat preference: Lionfish have been found in almost all habitat types including artificial sites, canals, deep reefs, shallow reefs, small ledges and sand bottom.
  • Parasites: Compared to native fish, lionfish have almost no parasites, leaving more energy and time for growth and reproduction.
  • Growth: Lionfish appear to grow faster than similar sized native fish species like the graysby and the red hind.
Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub