Fish usually need to be caught to be measured, but scientists from the Grouper Moon Project and Cayman Islands government have used video camera systems to collect an impressive 17-year dataset of Nassau Grouper lengths from Little Cayman. We combined this with information on growth and abundance to produce a comprehensive assessment of Nassau Grouper on Little Cayman. We found that Nassau Grouper recovered on Little Cayman largely thanks to one strong year class from 2011 spawning, 4-8x average. Length data from Cayman Brac also showed signs of a strong 2011 year class and substantial improvement in population status in recent years. Our analysis demonstrates that video camera systems are effective for monitoring protected fish spawning aggregations and are especially promising for situations where catch, effort, and invasive length data are unavailable.
With 15,000 tube feet and up to 24 arms, the magnificent Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) is found from Baja Mexico to Alaska. Since 2013, this magnificent species has suffered a dramatic decline due to a wasting disease. Many fear that the species may be on the brink of extinction. To quantify the decline and possibly establish grounds for protections and intervention, REEF joined in a partnership of more than 60 institutions led by The Nature Conservancy and Oregon State University. REEF provided data collected through the Volunteer Fish Survey Project to help establish whether the Sunflower Sea Star warranted listing on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Threatened Species. REEF shared data from 32,517 REEF surveys conducted at hundreds of sites between California and Alaska from 1998 to 2019, which included 18,035 records of the Sunflower Sea Star. Thanks to the efforts of our volunteer surveyors, REEF was able to contribute almost a third of the data used in the IUCN assessment.
The analysis found a 90.6% decline in the species. The resulting report was issued to the IUCN in fall 2020 and in December of that year, it was announced that the Sunflower Sea Star was placed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered, just one step below extinction. The decline has had cascading impacts on the marine environment. Sunflower Sea Stars are a main predator of sea urchins, whose populations have now exploded in many regions. Higher numbers of sea urchins, which feast on kelp, has led to “urchin barrens” and a significant decline in kelp forest ecosystems.
This paper, a chapter in a book on Marine Disease Ecology, focuses on global disease outbreaks that have resulted in mass mortality events that have subsequently impacted marine communities. One of the four case studies in the paper is the Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) event that impacted the west coast of the US and Canada beginning in 2013. Data collected by REEF surveyors in this region on several species of echinoderms have been the basis of multiple published studies on the impact of SSWD. These studies are referenced in the book chapter.
This paper summarizes research done as part of the Grouper Moon Project to understand sound made by several species of grouper. Many fishes produce calls during spawning that aid in species and mate recognition. When multiple sound-producing species inhabit an area, the detection range may decrease and limit call function. Acoustic partitioning, the separation of calls in time, space, or spectral frequency, can minimize interference among species and provide information about fish behavior and ecology, including possible response to increasing anthropogenic noise. The authors investigated acoustic partitioning among 4 sound-producing epinephelids, Nassau Grouper Red Hind, Black Grouper, and Yellowfin Grouper, using passive acoustic data collected at the mass spawning aggregation site on the west end of Little Cayman in the Cayman Islands during the spawning seasons of 2015 to 2017. Results indicate separation in space and time between species calls, which aids in acoustic partitioning. When this separation did not occur, unique call structures were present, which may aid in effective intraspecies communication.
This paper presents exciting results from the Grouper Moon Project, documenting conservation success for endangered Nassau Grouper. Results of the analysis showed that on both Little Cayman and Cayman Brac in the Cayman Islands, Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations have more than tripled in response to adaptive management by the Cayman Islands government over a decade. On Little Cayman, the aggregating population grew from around 1,200 fish in 2009 to over 7,000 in 2018. The study used a two-pronged approach that included tagging and video census data for monitoring and counting Nassau Grouper populations in an effort to more accurately estimate annual numbers of fish in the population, and thus provide insight into the effects of ongoing conservation efforts. While many governments have enacted regional or seasonal fishing closures in an attempt to allow recovery of overfished stocks of aggregating reef fishes, this is the first study to provide evidence that these measures can be successful across multiple decades.
The paper was authored by a collaborative team of researchers from Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), Cayman Islands Department of Environment, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Oregon State University. The Grouper Moon Project represents nearly 20 years of research, monitoring, and outreach efforts, coordinated by REEF and Cayman Islands Department of Environment, in collaboration with researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Oregon State University. It is the Caribbean’s oldest continuous grouper spawning aggregation research program, and represents one of the most advanced, multi-faceted tropical fisheries research programs in the world. Due to overfishing during spawning, Nassau Grouper have suffered region-wide stock collapse. By the 1980s large aggregations had all but disappeared from the Caribbean region. Of the remaining aggregations, few contained more than 1,000 individuals and the species is currently listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The aggregation on Littl Cayman is the largest known for this endangered reef fish.
Much of the science done by the Grouper Moon Project's collaborative research team is focused on gaining a better understanding Nassau Grouper populations in the Cayman Islands through studying their spawning aggregations; however, long-term acoustic tags (tracking pingers) allow us to gather information on how these fish behave at their home reefs outside of the spawning season. Nassau Grouper are known to be solitary and territorial. But during winter full moons, the fish leave their home site and travel, sometimes long distances, to a spawning aggregation, where they stay for up to 14 days. In this study, Grouper Moon scientists used tagging data to look at movement behavior and vertical habitat use. They found that most Nassau Grouper tend to return to the same home reef following spawning, but that the areas occupied at home reefs can change through time. In particular, they found that larger fish tend to occupy deeper areas than smaller fish, and fish will generally move to deeper reef areas over time. They also found that Nassau Grouper are more likely to be active at dawn and dusk than other times of the day, likely due to feeding activities. This information is adding to what we know about this iconic species, and will help support management of Nassau Grouper populations throughout the Caribbean. To find out more about the Grouper Moon Project, visit www.REEF.org/groupermoonproject.
A new species of shrimpgoby was discovered by active REEF surveyor, Janet Eyre, while conducting REEF surveys in the Misool area of Raja Ampat in January 2019. Janet then communicated with authors, providing images and an exact location of where the fish was sighted, enabling the collection of type specimens. The new species was described and named after Janet - Janet's Shrimpgoby (Tomiyamichthys eyreae).
In this paper, researchers from the Marine Megafauna Foundation show strong evidence that South Florida features a nursery ground for manta rays, only the third such special place known for the species. The results are surprising, given the proximity to large numbers of people and human activity. The lead author spent hundreds of hours conducting visual boat-based surveys between Jupiter Inlet and Boynton Beach between June 2016 to November 2019 in order to locate and identify individual manta rays from their color patterns and markings. Through the time period, she identified 59 individuals, and saw several multiple times. While the warm south Florida waters seem conducive to young manta growth, there is a trade-off; 46 percent of the indivudals showed evidence of injury or scarring from boat propellers, fishing equipment, or other unidentified causes. The authors used the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project database to establish a baseline of sighting frequency for the species in Florida, and noted a very low frequency of occurence by REEF surveyors (<1% statewide; from approx. 45,000 surveys conducted in Florida since 1993).
Want to learn more? National Geographic coverage on this study
The study used almost 11,000 REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project surveys collected between California and Alaska between 2006 and 2017 to evaluate the massive decline of the Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides). The authors documented a precipitous decline in the important species, primarily linked to the devastating sea star wasting disease epidemic that was wide-spread along the US and Canadian west coast starting in 2013, as well as warming ocean temperatures. In many places, the Sunflower Sea Stars have failed to return. A decline or absence of this species will likely lead to a boom of sea urchins, loss of kelp, and other cascading effects on the ecosystem. The study findings might prompt consideration of listing the species on the Endangered Species List.
A press release is available at http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2019/01/once-abundant-sea-stars-imperile....
This is the third paper that has used REEF data to evaluate the impacts of the wasting disease. The other two are described at these links: Devastating transboundary impacts of sea star wasting disease on subtidal asteroids (PLoS ONE) and Evidence for a trophic cascade on rocky reefs following sea star mass mortality in British Columbia (PeerJ).
This study published by Friends of MacArthur Beach State Park supports previous research suggesting that participation in citizen-science programs can significantly enhance student learning and attitudes about science, while simultaneously promoting environmental stewardship. Since 1995, MacArthur Beach has been participating in REEF's Volunteer Fish Survey Project. In 2012, MacArthur Beach incorporated the REEF surveys into the park’s summer camp curriculum to increase monitoring efforts while also using the program as an educational tool. The utilization of the REEF program in their summer camps provides a valuable, cost-effective way of monitoring the environmental health of its nearshore marine ecosystem, while simultaneously providing the potential to have measurable impacts on the attitudes and actions of the participants. In this study, the authors used the MacArthur Beach summer camp program to quantify student learning gains and changes in attitudes toward the environment through a research-based experiential learning activity. Their findings show that providing students with the opportunity to collect scientific data through citizen-science programs can increase their understanding of local ecosystems, enhance their observation skills, and can improve their understanding of the scientific process.