Efforts to save groupers continue

The ban on taking Nassau grouper from
its designated spawning areas from 1 November to 31 March is intended to
prevent extinction of the species.

Bradley Johnson, research officer
with the Department of Environment explained why it was important to protect
the Nassau grouper, which is listed as threatened on the International Union
for Conservation of Nature Red List of threatened species due to over-fishing
throughout the Caribbean.

“Culturally, the Nassau grouper has
long been one of the most important food fish harvested in the Caribbean and
this resource has become severely depleted and in many cases extinct throughout
its range,” he said.

The Cayman Islands has one of the
few viable Nassau grouper spawning aggregations known to exist in the northwest
Caribbean. However, according to Mr. Johnson, the survival of this aggregation
is still uncertain.

The grouper is an apex predator on
the reef and plays a vital role in controlling and balancing the food chain.
The greatly diminished numbers of the species endangers not only the species
itself but also the reef ecology.

“As a large and majestic fish,
groupers are also very important to the local tourism industry,” Mr. Johnson
said. “Their territorial habits, curious nature and long lifespan mean they
live within well-defined home ranges making frequent and close interactions
with the same fish possible.  In this way
they often become local underwater attractions. Many have even been named and
considered ‘pets’ to local divers.”

Part of the grouper’s vulnerability
can be attributed to its spawning habits. Groupers gather in large numbers in
spawning aggregations, but more than half of the historically known spawning
aggregations in the Caribbean are now considered extinct.

“Nassau grouper migrate to these
spawning aggregation sites during the winter full moons in order to reproduce
in mass aggregations. These mass aggregations at known times and places make
the species much easier for fishermen to target. All of the species
reproductive effort occurs at these sites and within very short time frames,”
said Mr. Johnson.

The ban on taking groupers from
designated spawning areas was first instituted in 2003 for an initial period of
eight years, with the current legal restriction expiring 31 December 2011.

“The significance of the eight-year
time period is that this is the average length of time taken for a fish
produced in a particular spawning event to return to the aggregation to
participate in spawning,”’ said Mr. Johnson.

The ban applies to all eight
designated grouper spawning areas in the Cayman Islands. These are Coxswain
Bank off East End, Sand Cay Bank off South West Point and the northeast and
southwest ends of Twelve Mile Bank in Grand Cayman, the West End and East End
banks in Little Cayman, and the West End and East End banks in Cayman Brac.

There is a year-round minimum size
limit of 12 inches on Nassau groupers, and no fish traps may be set within a
one mile radius of a designated grouper spawning area from 1 November to 31
March. Nassau grouper may not be taken by spear gun either.

According to the Marine
Conservation Board, any person, who by any means, takes or receives or has in
his possession any Nassau grouper from designated grouper spawning areas is in
contravention of the law and may be liable on summary conviction to a penalty
of CI$500,000 and one year in jail, with any equipment used in such
contravention being subject to forfeiture.

Any illegal fishing in Grand Cayman
should be reported to the DOE Marine Enforcement Officers Mark Orr at 916-4271,
and Ronnie Dougall at 916-5849, or to the RCIP Marine Unit at 926-0631. For
Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, reports may be made to DOE Officers Erbin
Tibbetts at 926-0136, Robert Walton at 926-2342, or Keith Neale at 916-7021.