by Larry Smith
Grouper is the highest-priced and most popular food fish in the Bahamas. So you'd think it would be in our best interest to keep it around for the pot, and for the livelihood of fishermen.
The only one way to do that is by not fishing it to extinction. But that's exactly what's happening, despite protections such as a closed season that were recently introduced. Some are now calling for these protections to be lifted, so they can exploit this tasty fish in a way that will inevitably lead to its disappearance from our menus.
To fully appreciate why this is the case, you have to understand the grouper's life cycle.
They don't reach sexual maturity until they are at least five years old, or about 20 inches long. They can grow up to three feet, weigh up to 55 pounds, and survive for 20 years or more in the wild, but fishing targets larger individuals with the highest reproductive capacity and skews the population to juveniles.
So the first point to appreciate is that a slow reproductive rate makes this species vulnerable to over-exploitation because they can't replace the population fast enough to compensate. In fact, several species of grouper are already endangered, including the Nassau grouper, our favourite culinary ingredient.
But the way that groupers reproduce makes them even more vulnerable. Every year these normally solitary fish migrate as far as 100 miles to a few specific areas to mate in large groups around the time of the winter full moons. Historically, such spawning aggregations have included more than 100,000 individuals.
That makes them easy targets for fishermen, who often know where and when the aggregations occur, and who remove the most fertile individuals. This results in substantially fewer fish in the next generation. In many instances, entire stocks have been wiped out due to intense fishing pressure at spawning aggregations.
For example, the extirpation of a large Nassau grouper aggregation near St Thomas in the 1970s led to the collapse of this fishery in the US Virgin Islands. In Belize, the aggregation at Caye Glory once had groupers congregating in "countless numbers", but by the 1990s no fish were reported. And the last reported Nassau grouper aggregation in Jamaica disappeared 40 years ago.
In 1970 observers reported an aggregation of possibly 100,000 groupers spawning at Cat Cay near Bimini, and catches of 30,000 fish. Similar numbers once congregated at a spawning site near High Cay Andros, but this aggregation has since declined to only a few fish. And catches at a site in southern Long Island declined from several thousand per season to 100 fish in the late 1980s - all of which were taken, effectively extirpating the site.
Groupers are fished in the Bahamas with hookahs, traps, hand lines and spears. And based on anecdotal surveys of fishermen by scientists, the most accessible spawning aggregation sites have already been fished out.
And once an aggregation has disappeared, it does not re-form, suggesting that knowledge of spawning sites depends on cultural transmission. In other words, young groupers, in the absence of enough older, reproductively experienced individuals, are unable to locate their spawning site.
According to Dr. Yvonne Sadovy, a top fisheries biologist who co-chairs the World Conservation Union specialist section on groupers, "Globally, without exception, uncontrolled exploitation of fish spawning aggregations has resulted in severe declines in associated fisheries. This includes the Nassau grouper, which is categorized as endangered."
Many Bahamian fishermen are under the impression that Nassau groupers are not being seen in vast quantities any more because they have moved to deeper waters or are not taking the hook. But Sadovy insists that is not the case.
"Generally reduced catch numbers should be correctly interpreted as declines in absolute fish numbers rather than as behavioural change," she said in a recent comment updating her 2009 report recommending a closed season in the Bahamas. "This conclusion is supported by the observed need for fishers to travel further and fish longer to attempt to maintain catch levels, a classic sign of overfishing."
In addition, both fisheries landings and mean body size in catches have declined since the 1990s despite a minimum size regulation, protection during the spawning season and marine protected areas, Sadovy said. "There is no indication that these declines are due to reduced fishing effort or changes in fishing practices, suggesting that overfishing is most likely the cause."
Scientists estimate there may be as few as 10,000 Nassau groupers remaining worldwide, and their numbers are declining. Currently all harvest of this fish is prohibited in the US. Belize has permanently protected 11 aggregation sites and instituted a closed season from December to March.
Bermuda has banned the harvest of Nassau grouper since 1996. And in the Cayman Islands, the penalty for catching Nassau grouper at a spawning aggregation site between November and March is up to one year in prison or $500,000 in fines.
But Adrian LaRoda of the Commercial Fishers Alliance has called for the Bahamas government to lift the ban on grouper fishing this December - a ban that was first imposed only a few years ago. He thinks this will have a negligible effect on grouper stocks, and Fisheries Minister Alfred Gray took the request to cabinet today for approval.
"You can say that some product may be threatened but in the grand scheme of things fishermen are not seeing that," LaRoda told the Tribune. "In the absence of a stock assessment there are some who say the resources are being threatened. The people saying that's not correct are the fishermen."
On a recent visit to the Montagu fish market, vendors selling groupers priced at $50 to $90 were entirely dismissive of the closed season and adamant that any problems with the fishery were caused solely by foreign poachers. But the market price alone shows that grouper has become a luxury item due to increasing scarcity and demand. And scientists say that a closed season is the most effective way to protect spawning aggregations.
"With a permanent closed season in place, general economic information suggests that fishers can still earn a good living from fishing Nassau grouper due to typically higher prices of fish when the market is not flooded during the spawning season," Dr Sadovy said, adding that protecting the spawning season should result in an increase in the number of fish caught during non-spawning times in the long-term.
Scientists have also called for a revision of the legal minimum size limit, a maximum size limit to protect the largest (and most fecund) female spawners, and no further expansion of fishing effort. Experience with the Nassau grouper in the Cayman Islands shows that protection can lead to increased fish numbers and the start of recovery.
Healthy aggregations result in more productive fisheries and more equitable access to the resource during the nine non-spawning months. This is because catches can be made over a wider area, and by many more communities, when not concentrated on aggregations.
"As the last remaining significant fishery of the Nassau grouper globally, the measures taken in the Bahamas will be of major significance for the future status of the species," Dr Sadovy said.
However, the current administration's commitment to fisheries conservation has yet to be determined. Minister Gray recently caused a stir amongst environmentalists when he suggested on television that there was no need to protect conch populations in the Bahamas.
"There's no conch shortage here - I don't know where that came from," Gray told ZNS 'news'. "You can find conch everywhere in the Bahamas."
This is the kind of cavalier anti-science diatribe displayed by right-wing Republican demagogues in the United States. The facts are that Florida’s conch fishery collapsed decades ago, and conch harvesting was banned throughout the continental United States in 1986, as well as in Cuba, Bermuda, the Dutch Antilles, Colombia, Mexico, the Virgin Islands and Venezuela.
And, as with the grouper, there is growing evidence that conch populations are in danger of collapsing here too.
Again, the key point to consider is that conchs don't reproduce once their numbers fall below a certain density. That’s because – like groupers - they gather in large spawning aggregations to breed. New research has shown that conch stocks are declining, and in some cases severely declining. And this data has been provided to the Department of Marine Resources.
Researchers have observed no mating at all with a density of less than 47 adult conch per hectare. So having conch in the future is based on our ability to maintain sufficient population densities in the present. This is further complicated by the fact that the animals are slow to mature, meaning they are often harvested before they have a chance to reproduce.
For example, in the Berry Islands researchers found that juvenile populations in important nursery grounds that were studied in the 1980s had declined a thousand times to only a few hundred individuals by 2009. And of the eight historical fishing grounds surveyed off Andros in 2010, only one had adult densities allowing minimal reproduction.
From this research scientists conclude that conch densities in commercially fished areas of the Bahamas are decreasing to levels that will not sustain the population. Fishing grounds in the Berry Islands, Andros and Lee Stocking Island in the Exumas all show evidence of collapsing populations. And scientists have called of the Bahamas to end conch exports as a result.
Conch has been legally exported from the Bahamas since 1992 - almost 600,000 pounds last year alone - which only increases the fishing pressure on conch stocks. It makes little sense to allow the export of hundreds of thousands of pounds of conch meat every year, while watching the decline of this key Bahamian fishery.
Do we really want to preside over the end of these important cultural catches in the Bahamas? An online petition has been launched by the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation and the Bahamas National Trust to support enhanced protection of these fisheries. So you can make your voice heard. The petition has already attracted over 1100 signatures in a little more than 24 hours.
A new documentary by master American filmmaker Ken Burns aired on PBS this week. It chronicled one of the worst man-made ecological disasters in history, in which bad agricultural practices combined with a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly turned the western plains into a permanent desert.
One of the grizzled farmers who lived through that dreadful experience and was interviewed about the Dust Bowl had this to say: "If the things we're doing are going to mess up the future - don't do it." It's good advice.