Category Archives: 2022 REEF Marine Conservation

Lauren Bulik

So Many Fish, So Little Time

Many Sergeant Majors, Few Stoplight Parrotfish, Single Squirrelfish… Are you a Squirrelfish Squirrelfish or Longspine Squirrelfish? These are the thoughts going through my head during my dive, marking down all the fish I can identify on my underwater survey paper. Afterwards, I’ll upload my data into REEF’s online database—one of the largest marine life databases worldwide. 

This database has grown as a result of REEF’s flagship program, the Volunteer Fish Survey Project (VFSP). The VFSP is a citizen science effort, and runs off volunteers; any snorkeler or diver can contribute by recording the species and relative abundance of any fish they see underwater and uploading the data. 

I first began to learn my Fish ID during orientation, while learning the Volunteer Fish Survey Project Presentation, which went over the most common fish you’re likely to encounter in the Florida Keys, their behavior, and different memory tricks to help remember them. These fish were pretty easy to remember, learning just a few fish from each family, especially as I studied and listened to the presentation many times in preparation for when I would teach it myself. 

However, I was sure I had learned them when I went surveying for the first time with my fellow interns, led by REEF’s Education and Outreach Fellow, Maddie. After spending last summer in the Florida Keys as well, I was very familiar with the Keys’ coral reefs and the fish on them, however, I never knew the names of most of the fish. This time though, being able to identify all the different fish swimming around me, completely changed my experience. We were snorkeling, so Maddie was able to point out specific fish to us or we could ask questions on the surface. 

Education and Outreach Fellow Maddie, myself, and Interns Cayla, Grace and Alyssa on our first survey outing with local dive shop Pirates Cove

Back at the office, we submitted our data together, and with two surveys under our belt, myself and the other interns were able to take our Level 2 Surveyor exam (REEF has different surveyor levels for data quality check reasons), which we all passed with flying colors. My journey as a surveyor had begun. 

The rest of the summer I surveyed as much as possible. Although diving was not a part of our daily duties at REEF, we were given a half-day off each week where we could go diving for free with the local dive shops so that we could survey, which was an amazing perk. But one half-day wasn’t enough, and I’m glad my fellow interns were as excited about surveying as I was. They were always ready to go after work or on the weekends, whether it be off a friend’s boat or in the mangroves. We would spend hours talking about the fish we saw, and the ones we did and didn’t know. 

Although I fell in love with the reefs of the Upper Keys and all the fish that lived there, one of my favorite surveying dives was at Blue Heron Bridge in Riviera Beach, Florida. Under the bridge, the water is less than 10 feet deep, but filled with tons of unique creatures, most I’d never seen before. Thankfully, there was a REEF staff member with us who was able to write out the fish we didn’t know on her survey slate, and the next day, we went through all the pictures we took to go over what we saw. With such a shallow site, we were able to dive for over 2 hours, and surveyed 60 different species!

Bandtail Puffer

Buffalo Trunkfish


Flying Gurnard









By the end of the summer, I was an Expert Surveyor—and that’s not just a self-proclaimed title. After 25 surveys, I was qualified to take the Level 3 exam, along with two of the other interns. This one was a lot harder than the Level 2, with a lot more fish, but I felt prepared after a summer of surveying and learning more fish, and also biweekly Fish ID classes with Maddie where we would learn more fish from certain families like grunts and damselfish. With a little bit of studying, all three of us were able to pass. 

However, I had reached 35 surveys, meaning I could even take the Level 4 exam. This one required a lot more studying. These exams apply to the entire Tropical Western Atlantic region, and a lot of the fish on the Level 4 exam weren’t common or seen at all in the Keys. The Level 4 exam also focused a lot more on fish families like Jacks, Blennies, and Gobies, where the differences between individual species are a lot smaller and harder to notice than with Angelfish, for example. I was able to pass though, getting over a 90% on the exam of 100 pictures where I had to identify the species and family. 

Surveying completely changed my dive experience, and made me feel so much more connected to the underwater world and the communities of fish that live there.

In the twelve weeks of my time with REEF, I submitted 37 surveys and recorded 130 different species on over 30 different sites.

Not only is it cool for me to be able to keep track of what fish I’ve seen or haven’t seen, but I’m now able to share something more tangible with others. Very few people get to experience ocean ecosystems like divers do, and surveying has helped, and will continue to help, me become a better advocate for the ocean and marine resources. I’m excited to continue surveying in the future, and to travel to more dive sites and grow my fish ID knowledge!


Taking a Bite Out of Lionfish

As a vegetarian, I never thought I would find myself spearing fish—and enjoying it. But here I was, with a lionfish at the end of my pole spear, the thrill of my first catch still there as I transferred it to a waiting ZooKeeper (lionfish containment device).

Lionfish are invasive to the Tropical Western Atlantic (TWA) region, and not only have they become established; they’re thriving. Originally from the Indo-Pacific, lionfish can now be found in huge numbers all the way up the East Coast of the United States and down to Brazil, in depths from 10 to 1,000 feet. Wherever they are, they’re terrorizing the native ecosystems with their voracious appetite. Lionfish will eat almost any prey species, and anything that will fit in their mouths and stomach (and even sometimes if it can’t). Many times, lionfish are found with fish popping out of their mouths because their prey was too big, or with a burst stomach.

With no native predator here in the TWA, humans have stepped up to control lionfish populations. This is where one of REEF’s main programs, the Invasive Species Program, which focuses on lionfish, comes in. To help fight the invasion, REEF educates the public, hosts lionfish derbies, and is conducting research on deep-water lionfish traps—all of which I’ve been able to get involved with this summer.

Not only have I aided in education through our Ocean Explorers Education Program I talked about in my last blog post, but also through informal tabling at local events and lionfish jewelry workshops. Despite how destructive they are, it’s undeniable that lionfish are beautiful—which makes their fins perfect for making jewelry. Not only does making lionfish jewelry increase lionfish economic value, but it also raises awareness. I’ve worn my lionfish necklace all summer, and it has started so many great conversations about lionfish, and created opportunities to spread more information.

Lionfish necklace and ring, made during a lionfish jewelry workshop

Lionfish jewelry workshop at Amoray Cay Resort

In addition to everyday conversations I’ve had with others, tabling is a great way to spread information beyond people we normally reach during our structured programs. I’ve tabled at an art walk outside the local brewery, and outside a major dive shop during lobster mini-season, creating a major range of people. Here, we’re able to clear up common misconceptions—for example, we explain that lionfish are actually venomous, not poisonous, so they’re safe to eat—or further detail lionfish spearing regulations to those going out lobstering in case they see one.

Through working at REEF, I’ve developed a stronger passion for education after I saw firsthand how if given the knowledge, people want to be involved and help with ocean conservation concerns. Most of the time, they just don’t know how. I wanted to reach a wider audience, which is why I created a social media series this summer on REEF’s Invasive Species Facebook Page. I created an infographic for each Sunday in the month of July, with each week focusing on a different way that people can get involved with lionfish. These included how to catch lionfish, lionfish jewelry and cooking, new developments in lionfish research, and advertising REEF’s upcoming derby. I had a lot of fun with this project, in creating the graphics, and learning to condense and clarify dense, important information. It was also cool to see after they were posted how people interacted and shared the posts.

Infographic on Eating Lionfish from my July Invasive Species Social Media series

In addition to education, there’s also the derbies—single-day events where teams compete to remove as many lionfish as possible. Although I unfortunately won’t be here for either of REEF’s two biggest derbies, in April and September, I was lucky enough to be here during for a smaller derby, held in place of the normal April derby where many teams had been unable to compete due to bad weather. Here, I was able to get a small taste of what it was like. After teams came and dropped off their catch, I helped measure them, and fillet them. Derbies, along with regular removals, are one of the most effective methods of controlling lionfish, so it was really cool to be part of that.

Measuring lionfish: At a derby, prizes are given to those who remove the smallest and largest lionfish

Learning how to fillet a lionfish, to eat later

REEF’s derbies and workshops on how to successfully and carefully remove lionfish have been a huge success, and in partnership with the community, have done wonders in controlling their populations. In the Florida Keys, finding a lionfish on the shallow reefs is a lot less likely, and I only saw a handful all summer. This is not the case in other areas of the Caribbean, where lionfish still run rampant on shallow reefs due to stricter spearing regulations.

But, while we’ve done a great job spearing and netting lionfish in the shallow regions, lionfish are still thriving in deeper waters where SCUBA can’t reach. REEF is currently working on developing a deep-water lionfish trap, known as the Gittings trap. The trap consists of a large metal rebar frame, with netting and a fish aggregating device (FAD) in the middle that attracts the lionfish. REEF is currently in the testing phase of these traps. Our goal is to eventually send them out with local fishermen to increase removal efficiency and provide opportunity for economic gain from the lionfish caught by allowing the fishermen to sell them with their other catch.

This research is what led me to my first spearing experience. That day, I had gone out with a few staff members on a trap retrieval mission. By 7 a.m., we were out on the boat. I’d been prepped for the worst conditions—4–6 foot waves, bad vis—but everything seemed to work out in our favor. The waves weren’t too bad, visibility was decent, and we found the trap quickly. With our main goal complete, we then had plenty of time to spear some lionfish.

Myself and members of REEF’s Conservation Science team with the removed Gittings trap

This was one of one of my first deep dives of the summer, and at 90 feet, there were many more lionfish than I was used to. However, we made quick work of spearing as many as possible, and in two short dives, we were able to remove 28. Although it took me a second to get the hang of the pole spear, I was proud to leave the dive with my first, and second, lionfish speared.

Twenty-eight lionfish speared, which were brought back to the dock to be measured and filleted

Although I’d learned a lot about these traps at work already, and even helped build them, seeing one deployed, how it worked under water, and how it would be removed was a really cool experience. Seeing all the lionfish on the deeper reef also made me realize how important these traps were, and the process of continuing to develop technology to fight the ever-evolving lionfish problem.

Seeing all the different parts of the Invasive Species Program and how they take multiple angles to tackle one main issue has been an interesting experience and has given me a lot to think about as far as ocean conservation. It was really inspiring to see how successful the program is, and to be able to participate in it and contribute to the cause myself. At the end, the major successes of the program are thanks to community and government support, and continued success will rely on it as well, from getting fishers involved, to local restaurants selling lionfish, to everyday people supporting the cause. I’m most thankful to have contributed to raising awareness, to help ensure this community support continues. I’m also hoping to make it down to the Keys to experience a big derby for myself one year!


Sharing the Underwater World with the Ocean Explorers Education Program

“You’re the people who count fish.” Or, “You guys work with corals, right?” These are two of the most common responses we get at REEF when we ask people if they’ve heard of us before. And while the first is mostly right, the second, not so much. It’s understandable though, the confusion on what exactly is done at REEF — I myself wasn’t exactly sure when starting my internship this summer (although I would quickly learn).

REEF stands for Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and is a marine conservation non-profit based in the Florida Keys, but with a membership of over 75,000 worldwide. REEF’s mission is to protect biodiversity and ocean life worldwide by actively engaging and inspiring the public through citizen science, education, and partnerships with the scientific community. This is mostly done through four main projects. The Volunteer Fish Survey Project (VFSP), the Invasive Species Program, the Grouper Moon Project, and the Ocean Explorers Education Programs.

I’ve had the opportunity to get involved in each of these programs this summer, but the one I’m most closely tied to is Ocean Explorers. This is our education program where we lead groups through immersive and hands-on activities centered around marine ecosystems. We work with all ages and experience levels, and tailor the program for each group’s needs.

As a Marine Conservation Intern, it’s my job to lead these events. My orientation at REEF was spent learning them inside and out in our on campus Interpretive Center (IC) with my fellow interns. There were four presentations total we had to learn: three about our other programs, and one about Florida Keys ecology. Hearing them for the first time, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t think I could ever learn them as flawlessly as our Education and Program Manager who was teaching them to us.

But when it came time to lead my first presentation of the summer, I felt confident and ready after all the practice I’d had. I was doing Fish ID, a presentation that goes through the most common fish you can see in the Florida Keys. It was for a group called Road Scholars, a tour group consisting of grandparents and their grandchildren. I found it fun to share my little tips and tricks for each fish, and see which ones they like the most (there’s many for the French Angelfish, including the yellow on its scales that looks like it has a french manicure, which are always hits).

Teaching Fish ID Presentation at John Pennekamp Coral REEF State Park (The trick to remember the Queen Angelfish is they have a crown on top of their head)

It was encouraging as the group became more engaged. These people were on vacation, and had never seen any of these fish, yet were excited and eager to learn. Afterwards, we did a mock survey with them of the fish we have on our walls, and it was awesome to see how much they remembered. Kids as young as 5 were identifying grunts, and reminding their grandparents of the names of the fish!

I’ve also done a few events with a program known as Road Less Traveled, made up of young teenagers. Fish ID with them was super fun, and they were all eager to guess the different families and full of questions about their behaviors and how often I see different fish. The best part though was I got to go out and snorkel with them after, so I could see for myself how much they remembered.

As soon as we got in the water, the kids were excitedly yelling amongst themselves about all the fish they were seeing — so many Sergeant majors and Yellow-tail snapper right at the surface! I’ve done Fish ID diving with a group as well, but snorkeling was a lot more engaging because the kids could ask me questions in real time, popping their head up to point out a specific fish or describe one they weren’t sure about. The boat debrief after was filled with more questions and what everyone’s favorite fish was, like parrotfish or the trumpetfish.

My awesome Road Less Traveled surveyors

My surveyors from a Great Annual Fish Count dive

Fish ID is one of my favorite things to do with groups, mostly because I know from personal experience how much more fulfilling snorkeling and diving is when you know the different fish by name, instead of just passively taking in the different darting colors. Even when someone can only tell me the name of one fish that they saw, they always do it with pride and excitement, and I can tell they’ll remember that fish for a long time.

Fish ID is the most common presentation we give to groups, but we also do a lot of Lionfish, as well. With the same program but a different group, we had one day where we did a quick Lionfish talk, and then a dissection and our Fish Investigator activity. In the activity, I had 5 different fish that had been found in the stomachs of Lionfish, and the group had to figure out what species they were. It’s definitely tricky, because the fish are usually juveniles and mostly stripped of their colors, but the kids were great in scouring the Fish ID books and picking out different features to match. They also loved the dissection, completely fascinated by the different parts and their venomous spines.

Lionfish Fish Investigator Activity with Road Less Traveled

There’s been many more events like these throughout the summer, and they’re always the highlight of my week. Many of these people are just here on vacation, and are coming in with little to no knowledge about the ocean. I feel honored to have this role of bridging the gap between them and the marine world. We all rely on the ocean everyday, in so many ways we don’t realize, and these education programs are an amazing way to make it more accessible to people. The more people know about the ocean, the more people are inclined to help protect it.

And as much as I have taught others this summer, I have learned so much as well, from the REEF Staff and even from those I’m supposed to be teaching. I’m excited to share more of what I learned and my experiences with our other programs in my next blog posts!