Damselfish may be more aggressive than you think

This year is beginning on an interesting note. There is a lot going on that is relevant to the diving community and may influence how we interact with the reef. Over the course of the year, we will examine these topics as they unfold.

Coral classifications as threatened or endangered and redefining sanctuary zones top the list. One of my favorites, Aquarius Reef Base, is back in the news, with a new development involving Florida International University. I have a feeling this is going to be a very active year.

While I was pondering these points on a recent dive, I took a nip. Not in my old traditional [rum] sense, but from a damselfish. It really was quite pesky. And to make it worse, the diminutive denizen kept getting in the frame of my subject. I just could not shake the little twit. It was every bit as annoying as my neighbor’s barking dog.

As a result of all this deep thinking (yes, pun intended), while I was doing some background research on coral and marine zones, I found some interesting articles on the Science Daily website. This is a great spot, and I often begin researching topics here. It’s soup to nuts, including scientific descriptions on how soup can turn into nuts, if that has been observed by scientists.

How aggressive are damselfish, pound for pound? As it turns out, divers invading their space are not the only things damselfish exhibit aggression over. I don’t blame them for defending their territory when I’m trying to get a shot. That’s common, and can be comical. The species in our waters vary in size, color and behavior. There is an excellent, detailed chapter on all the damselfish species in the REEF Fish Behavior book.

The threespot damselfish is the focus of our look today, since they specialize in staghorn habitats. They have an effect on the coral around them. Historically, these damselfish made their home in branching staghorn corals. Those were great digs. Plenty of places to hide, relax and eat — just like living in a planned community. We all know what has happened to branching corals on our reefs. They are in trouble. Staghorn and elkhorn are on the docket to be kicked up to endangered status from threatened status.

A lot of damselfish had to move. Their homes have been decimated. Now they live in different surroundings. It’s like moving from a posh multilevel condo to a one bedroom next to the highway. The new digs just aren’t going to support the same behavior.

As a result of relocation, damselfish are damaging head corals. See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100527013236.htm. They have always nipped and damaged the coral, but the rapid growing staghorn could keep up with the damage. Now that damselfish have relocated to slower growing head corals, they are inflicting damage faster than the coral can recover. This presents a significant, added stressor to coral species that cannot recover quickly.

All the more reason for stepping up efforts to replant staghorn coral in our waters. We are fortunate to have a strong, concerted effort in the activity, led by our buddies at the Coral Restoration Foundation. Their activity also presents opportunities to save other, slower growing coral species by providing more real estate for the threespots to inhabit again as coral plantings grow.

CRF opens their education center in February at the Pilot House Marina. For divers, this is a good organization worthy of local support.

Speaking of threatened and endangered, public comment hearings were held in Key Largo and Key West this week. NOAA is proposing to raise staghorn and elkhorn from threatened to endangered, and expand the threatened species list. Pillar coral, boulder star coral, mountain star coral, star coral, Lamarck’s sheet coral and elliptical star coral are the species that are proposed for threatened status.

This dovetails with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary working groups, which are slated to begin their reviews this month. I would love to be a fly on the wall for that process.

Last year at one of the meetings I attended, a scientist from the Great Barrier Reef spoke. I’ve kept my eye peeled downunder since. Based on a recent study on marine reserves, there is now conclusive DNA evidence showing that “larval supply from marine reserves generates important recruitment subsidies to both fished and protected areas.” See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120524123019.htm for the entire story.
Their evidence demonstrated that marine reserves produced about half of all juvenile recruitment to both the protected and fished areas, while comprising less than 30 percent of the total space. If I recall correctly, our no-take zones are less than 3 percent of the sanctuary area.

Hugo Harrison from James Cook University in Australia says this is an important finding for policymakers and governments as well as scientists. Recognizing that marine reserves are a win-win for both conservation and commercial interests is a critical discussion point for the FKNMS working groups this year.
In his words: “Most importantly, I hope that recreational, artisanal, and commercial fishers will no longer perceive marine reserves as the ‘fish that got away’ but rather as the ‘golden goose’ of sustainable fishing practices.”

These working groups may prove to be one of the most important initiatives the Keys community can do to protect our way of life. I believe examining how to balance the traditional “tragedy of the commons” effect with a long term sustainability perspective will be the fulcrum upon which our future sways.

Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at tim@timgimages.com or through his web site at www.timgimages.com. Tim is actively involved with the Coral Restoration Foundation and the Aquarius Foundation.