In 1990 three men (Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach and Lad Akins), who share a love of the sea and a strong interest in protecting it and its inhabitants, happened to be at the right place at the right time at the Atlantis Dive Center in Key Largo.
The result was the birth of Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), a non-profit organization that has been awarded Gold-level Participant on Guidestar (http://www.guidestar.org/rxg/about-us/index.aspx ) and is one of the top rated non-profits on Greatnonprofits.org (http://greatnonprofits.org/).
With a model similar to the National Audubon Society successful birding programs, which have been in place for more than 100 years, REEF’s mission is to preserve marine ecosystems through educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active stewards and citizen scientists.
Paul Humann took up scuba diving and underwater photography in the early 1960s. A successful underwater photographer, he became one of PADI's early dive instructors. He left his Wichita, Kansas law practice in 1972 to pioneer the live-aboard diving craze by becoming captain/owner of the M/V Cayman Diver.
Ned DeLoach, a graduate of Texas Tech University in 1967, was drawn to Florida because of his love of diving. During his 20-year high school level teaching career in Jacksonville, DeLoach was an active cave diver, underwater photographer and editor of educational materials for the National Speleological Society. He serves now as the president of New World Publications.
Lad Akins, after studying engineering at Georgia Tech, was drawn to the Keys from south Georgia in 1982 “for the water.” While working in the dive industry as a dive instructor and boat captain, he developed a strong interest in teaching about marine life.
“Paul and Ned had the idea of combining divers’ eyes in the water with the scientific and management community’s needs for broad scale distribution and abundance of data to monitor changes,” said Akins.
“I took the ball and ran with it, serving as the organization’s founding executive director until 2006 and now serve as director of Special Projects focusing on the (invasive) lionfish issue.”
Run with he it did.
The REEF Lionfish Research Program now includes: a lionfish reporting system; lionfish derbies in Florida and the Bahamas; information and workshops on the lionfish invasion; training on safe collecting, handling techniques and permit requirements; and a lionfish cookbook on how to prepare lionfish – “the Caribbean's new delicacy.”
There is even information on restaurants with lionfish on the menu and a list of places to sell the lionfish you catch. (For more on the lionfish program see: http://www.reef.org/programs/exotic/lionfish/resources.)
Other REEF programs also have grown.
REEF’s Volunteer Fish Survey Project regions spread far and wide including the tropical western Atlantic (Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda, Gulf of Mexico, and mid-Atlantic states), northeast U.S. and Canada (Virginia through Newfoundland), west coast (California through British Columbia),tropical eastern pacific (Gulf of California to the Galapagos Islands), and Hawaiian Islands (main islands, the northwest chain, and Johnston Atol).
An interesting program is the “Grouper Moon Project” — a collaborative conservation program between REEF and the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment studying Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus), considered a social and ecological corner stone of Caribbean's coral reefs.
REEF’s headquarters is located in a yellow historical house in the median at mile marker 98.3 in Key Largo. It is filled with all manner of information about fish — books, pamphlets, photographs and equipment used in training how to collect lionfish.
I dropped by to visit with Ellie Splain (23), education program manager and previous intern, who enthusiastically gave me a rundown on REEF’s other programs and activities.
“Members and participants learn about the marine environment and gather valuable information used by scientists, marine park staff, and the general public,” Ellie said.
Ellie told me that REEF is placing additional emphasis in engaging non-divers.
“We are bringing in school and travel groups and focusing on young people to help spread information to the next generation,” she said.
“We have a daylong workshop for Coral Shores High School students who learn what we can do as a community to be better stewards for our ocean resources.”
“The high school students, in turn, pass along what they have learned to younger students.”
REEF is currently accepting applications for its fall 2015 “Marine Conservation Internship Program.”
The four month program provides an in-depth look into REEF's survey project and invasive lionfish program.
Interns also experience scientific diving, outreach and education, data collection and management, non-profit operations, and public speaking.
For more on REEF see: http://www.reef.org/about
For a complete list of the members of the REEF board, educator advisory committee, advisory panel and science liaison see: http://www.reef.org/about/board