New Help for Nassau Grouper, a Sitting Duck Facing Extinction
By ANAHAD O'CONNOR
The Nassau grouper, a large, colorful fish known for its spectacular spawning ritual, has all but disappeared in much of the Caribbean. But last month, under pressure from environmental organizations, Belize agreed to protect 11 spawning sites from commercial fishing in a move that could save the fish from extinction.
The grouper, which can grow to three feet and weigh up to 55 pounds, is a highly prized food source and a commercially valuable export whose spawning ritual makes it a sitting duck for fishermen. Each year, at the winter full moons in December and January, thousands of groupers congregate at sites off the coast of Belize to mate.
Local commercial fishermen are well aware of their tendency to "group" at the same time each year.
So like the fish, they gather at the spawning sites and easily scoop up huge catches, often before the groupers have had time to reproduce.
At Glover's Reef, an atoll and protected marine reserve off the coast of Belize, Janet Gibson, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society, has led an effort with the California-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography to restore grouper numbers.
At Glover's Reef, she said, scientists have documented an 80 percent decrease in grouper populations since the 1970's.
"There used to be about 15,000 groupers that aggregated here during the winter full moon," Ms. Gibson said. "Today, there are about 3,000 at most. And we've seen at several of the other sites that the decline has been dramatic as well."
At Cay Glory, another Belize spawning site, a grouper population that once numbered in the thousands now is down to about 20, Ms. Gibson said.
Surveys conducted by scientists at Glover's Reef show that if fishing continues at the current rate, groupers there will disappear, too, completely vanishing by 2013.
Armed with these alarming statistics, several environmental organizations pushed the government of Belize to place limits on fishing at grouper spawning sites.
The new regulations, passed on Nov. 16, prohibit commercial fishing in 11 known spawning areas, including Glover's Reef and Cay Glory, and leave two other sites open for commercial harvest.
"The fact that this legislation is so widespread and recognized in the government is great news," said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, director of marine conservation programs for Wildlife Conservation Society, which is based in the Bronx.
"The Belize barrier reef is the second-largest barrier ecosystem in the world and was declared a World Heritage site," Dr. Pikitch said, "so this is extremely important from a global standpoint." (The Great Barrier Reef off Australia is the largest.)
Though the new legislation will in theory protect a majority of the remaining Nassau groupers, in practice it remains to be seen whether the laws will be enforced, Dr. Pikitch said.
In the past, commercial fishermen have ignored restrictions. And so far, no fished-out grouper spawning area in the Caribbean has been able to recover fully.
But because many of the newly protected sites are in marine protected areas, Ms. Gibson is certain local conservationists will be able to help enforce the new laws.
"The effort to get this legislation has been a joint effort by many nongovernmental organizations and the fishery department, who lobbied strongly for several months," Ms. Gibson said. "This is just the first step in the restoration project. We're going to continue closely monitoring the populations at Glover's Reef and elsewhere in Belize."