The authors of this study looked at how reef fish community assemblages have changed over time at several sites in Florida. In particular, they looked for evidence of biological homogenization (increasing species similarity between sites), which can alter the ecological function of systems as well as the economic value associated with ecosystems through complex socio-ecological dynamics. The authors used REEF survey data to measure biological homogenization by tracking taxonomic changes over a decade across 13 near-shore sites off the Atlantic coast of Florida. Sites that were closer to populated coastlines, or have been subject to substantial disturbance events, were more likely to show homogenization. Protected reef sites showed little evidence of homogenization. The authors postulated feedback mechanisms between societal values, diver practices, diver experience, and the severity of homogenization. The authors also discuss how baseline knowledge of the ecosystem could influence whether or not people are inspired to take action when baseline community structures change.
This paper provides an updated look at non-native marine fishes that have been reported from Florida waters, following up on two previous papers (Semmens et al 2004 and Schofield et al 2009). The paper, co-authored by staff from REEF and the US Geological Survey (USGS), also provides information on Early-detection/Rapid-response (ED/ER) efforts.
In addition to the well-known invasion of non-native lionfish (Pterois volitans and P. miles), there are now 39 other non-native marine fishes that have been documented in Florida. These reports have mostly come in from REEF's Non-Native Species Reporting Program (www.REEF.org/report-exotic-or-invasive-sighting), which are then input to the USGS’s Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database (USGS-NAS). In addition to lionfish, there is one other Indo-Pacific species, Regal Demoiselle (Neopomacentrus cyanomos), that is considered established, along with two other species that have expanded their natural range in the region (Fairy Basslet, Gramma loreto, and Tessellated Blenny, Hypsoblennius invemar). The rest of the species have not yet established populations.
In 1999, REEF established an ED/ER program to mobilize efforts to locate and remove reported non-native species from Florida waters. In collaboration with the USGS and public aquarium institutions (originally the National Aquarium and more recently the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science), REEF has coordinated the removal of 13 individuals of 9 species from Florida's coastal waters (see list below). An additional 4 species have been removed by other institutions Many of the captured fishes were transferred to public aquaria where they were displayed to provide educational information to the public.
As discussed in Semmens et al (2004), the origin of most non-native fish species sighted in Florida is intentional release by well-meaning home aquarium owners. REEF works with partners, including the Marine Aquarium Societies of North America (MASNA), to conduct outreach with the public on alternatives for responsible disposal of unwanted fishes.
Successful Non-native Fish Removals From Florida Coastal Waters Coordinated by REEF's ED/ER Program
Orbicular Batfish, Platax orbicularis (n = 5)
Humbug Damselfish, Dascyllus aruanus
Chocolate Surgeonfish, Acanthurus pyroferus
Foxface Rabbitfish, Siganus unimaculatus
Spiny Chromis, Acanthochromis polyacanthus
Orangespine Unicornfish, Naso lituratus
Lagoon Triggerfish, Rhinecanthus aculeatus
Yellow Tang, Zebrasoma flavescens
Purple (yellow-tail) Tang, Zebrasoma xanthurum
The authors, Eliza Heery and colleagues at the Seattle Aquarium, NOAA, and the University of Washington, used REEF sightings data on Giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) in Washington State to evaluate patterns of occurrence with urbanization. The species is the largest known octopus in the world, and they can reach over 20 feet in length from one tentacle tip to the other. The study objectives were to determine whether the distribution and habitat-use patterns of Giant Pacific Octopus were correlated with urbanization intensity on nearby shorelines in Puget Sound. REEF was instrumental in the study, providing data for a much larger spatial area and longer time period than would otherwise have been available. Heery et al. used REEF data in a series of statistical models and found that urban effects varied with depth. On deeper dives (> 24 m), REEF divers had a higher probability of encountering octopus in more urban locations.
Why might this be? The study's authors conducted additional field surveys to explore two potential explanations. To determine whether food resources played a role, Heery et al. collected middens – piles of shells leftover from past meals of octopus – from octopus dens throughout Puget Sound. Midden piles indicated there were no differences in the diets of urban octopus and rural octopus, suggesting that food resources were not the driver of urban-related distribution patterns. Secondly, they conducted a series of video surveys in sets of adjacent sites where there was a lot versus very little anthropogenic debris (junk). As many recreational divers might have predicted, they found more octopus in locations where there was a lot of junk.
How is this important for science? Past studies in urban ecology have suggested that mesopredators (mid-sized consumers) benefit from urbanization because of the food and shelter resources city environments provide, but those studies have focused exclusively on terrestrial mesopredators (like racoons and coyotes). This is the first study to examine whether marine mesopredators exhibit comparable patterns. It concludes that within certain habitats (deeper zones), octopus are indeed positively correlated with urbanization. Yet it is likely that shelter resources (from junk) rather than food are the driver.
During the summers of 2013 and 2014, populations of sea stars along the west coast from Alaska to Mexico were decimated by the sea star wasting disease (SSWD) epizootic. Two of the most highly affected species along this range were Pisaster ochraceus (the Ochre Sea Star), the most common intertidal species, and Pycnopodia helianthoides (the Sunflower Sea Star), the most common subtidal species, both of which are endemic to the US western coast. REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project were used to evaluate populations of the Sunflower Star as part of this study (REEF surveyors do not monitor Ochre Stars because they are intertidal). The REEF data showed an extraordinary decimation of Sunflower Sea Stars, with no sign of recovery three years after the SSWD epizootic. In contrast, data collected by the authors on Ochre Stars in the San Juan Islands revealed high fatality rates (over 90%) associated with SSWD during the summer of 2014, followed by low levels of disease in the summers of 2015, 2016, and 2017. Population levels of Ochre Stars following the epizootic remained stable but small, and shifted in size structure from larger to smaller stars. Extremely low population size of Sunflower Stars raises concern about the capacity of this species to recover, as well as to resist other stochastic events in the future. These findings were presented at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Seattle, WA, in 2018.
Statistical habitat models, such as generalized linear models (GLMs) and generalized additive models (GAMs), are key tools for assisting Ecosystem-based Fisheries Management (EBFM) efforts. These models can be used to map species distributions and assist in marine protected area (MPA) planning. In this study, the authors applied a statistical methodology to produce preference functions for fish and invertebrates along the West Florida Shelf, and then mapped the hotspots of juveniles and adults of three economically important species (Red Snapper, Gag, and Red Grouper) for informing future MPA planning. The analysis used a comprehensive survey database that included all encounter and nonencounter data of the study ecosystem collected by fisheries‐independent and fisheries‐dependent surveys. The REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project dataset was one of 37 used in the analysis.
Ciguatera fish poisoning is a global public health concern that is associated with Gambierdiscus, a genus of harmful algae found in coral reef environments that includes species known to produce toxins (ciguatoxins). It is thought that the pathway of Ciguatera toxins is through the food web, originating with herbivores that have fed on Gambierdiscus-associated macroalgae.
The objectives of this study were to define spatial and temporal patterns in reef health and Gambierdiscus abundance across patch reefs in the three regions of the Keys (Upper, Middle, Lower), to determine whether the drivers of those patterns were natural or anthropogenic, and to identify biogeographic indicators of risk. To address these objectives, this study combined field sampling with a “big data” approach to spatial analysis. REEF's dataset was included in one of the "big data" resources used. The study used population data from REEF's Volunteer Fish Survey Project database to estimate biomass of the herbivorous parrotfish and surgeonfishes. Preliminary findings of this work suggest that surgeonfish in the Florida Keys may be actively ingesting Gambierdiscus spp. cells, but more work is needed. Although this study did not find a direct linear relationship between anthropogenic factors and Gambierdiscus cell densities, there is evidence that human activities have an indirect influence on Ciguatera fish poisoning risk through reef health, as well as through overfishing, and the destruction of inshore habitats like seagrass and mangroves.
The lead author of this study has previously used the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project database to construct detailed food webs of coral reef ecosystems in several Caribbean locations, including Jamaica (see here). In this paper, the authors assess the reliability of historical reconstructions of biodiversity from the paleocommunity by simulating the fossilization of a highly threatened and disturbed modern ecosystem, a Caribbean coral reef. Using the high-resolution coral reef food web from Jamaica, the authors compared system structures of the modern and simulated fossil reefs, including guild richness and evenness, trophic level distribution, predator dietary breadth, food chain lengths, and modularity. The authors were able to use both the long history of Jamaican reef biodiversity records in museum collections and the published literature, combined with the extensive citizen scientist data collected by the REEF project. The REEF data were particularly important as they provided a current account of the composition of the reef biota. Results indicated that the overall guild diversity, structure, and modularity of the reef ecosystem remained intact. These results have important implications for the integrity of fossil food web studies and coral reef conservation, demonstrating that fossil reef communities can be used to understand reef community dynamics during past regimes of environmental change.
This paper describes cleaning behavior that had previously not been documented in a particular species. The findings are the result of the keen eyes of two active REEF surveyors – Carol Cox and Frank Krasovec. Carol frequently surveys in the northern Gulf of Mexico and Frank surveys in his home state of North Carolina. Both photographed Yellowprow Goby, Elacatinus xanthiprora, cleaning other fishes, which is not typical for the species. Scientist and frequent REEF advisor, Dr. Ben Victor, noticed the photos, and started working with Carol and Frank to more fully document and publish the findings. Frank co-authored the paper with Ben.
There are several species in the western Atlantic genus Elacatinus, and they are broadly separated in to two groups – cleaners and sponge-dwellers. In most of the region, several species of each group are present, and Yellowprow Goby are sponge gobies. But in the northern temperate limits, along the northeastern coast of the Gulf of Mexico and along the east coast of the USA at North Carolina (beyond the range of coral-reef development), the only Elacatinus present is the Yellowprow Goby. It appears that the lack of other local cleaner species has allowed the evolution of facultative cleaning behavior in a species from a group characterized by the absence of that behavior.
This is a great example of the power of citizen scientists, and highlights their role in continuing the tradition of field naturalist.
This paper is an inventory of fish and invertebrate monitoring programs in the US Gulf of Mexico, including the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project, which has been active in the region since 1994. The authors conducted a gap analysis of the programs, and provided recommendations for improving current monitoring programs and designing new programs, and guidance for more comprehensive use and sharing of monitoring data. They also compiled a large monitoring database encompassing much of the monitoring data collected in the region using random sampling schemes and employed this database to fit statistical models to then map the spatial distributions of 61 fish and invertebrate functional groups, species and life stages. The study included 73 monitoring programs in the region. This study was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) RESTORE Act Science Program.
Culling can be an effective management tool for reducing populations of invasive species to levels that minimize ecological effects. However, culling is labour-intensive, costly, and may have unintended ecological consequences. In the Caribbean, culling is widely used to control invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish, Pterois volitans and P. miles, but the effectiveness of infrequent culling in terms of reducing lionfish abundance and halting native prey decline is unclear. In a 21-month-long field experiment on natural reefs, we found that culling effectiveness changed after the passage of a hurricane part-way through the experiment. Before the hurricane, infrequent culling resulted in substantial reductions in lionfish density (60–79%, on average, albeit with large uncertainty) and slight increases in native prey species richness, but was insufficient to stem the decline in native prey biomass. Culling every 3 months (i.e., quarterly) and every 6 months (i.e., biannually) had similar effects on lionfish density and native prey fishes because of high rates of lionfish colonization among reefs. After the hurricane, lionfish densities were greater on all culled reefs compared to non-culled reefs, and prey biomass declined by 92%, and species richness by 71%, on biannually culled reefs. The two culling frequencies we examined therefore seem to offer a poor trade-off between the demonstrated conservation gains that can be achieved with frequent culling and the economy of time and money realized by infrequent culling. Moreover, stochastic events such as hurricanes can drastically limit the effectiveness of culling efforts.