A full public notice from the Marine Conservation Board can be found on pages 10-11 of today’s Caymanian Compass. Readers can also review comments made by fishermen to the board and the responses.
“Currently the fishing of spawning aggregations can be likened to going to a hospital’s maternity ward and killing half of the pregnant women and their spouses annually,” the board says in the statement. “While an immigration policy can arbitrarily be adopted to make up for the inevitable shortfall in the local labour force (no pun intended), no such measure can be adopted for the Nassau grouper.”
Members of the board and Caribbean conservationists believe that if the Nassau groupers aren’t protected, they will become extinct.
“They are worth more alive than dead,” not just for their importance to the reef but also for the tourist dollars they can generate,” said conservationists Guy Harvey.
The groupers are considered an icon of the Caribbean because of their colourful personality and size. Many divers pet and name them.
Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie said Nassau groupers are normally solitary and only aggregate when spawning, pointing out that it is possible that the odd one may be caught on the reef by someone who is out fishing in areas where there are no restrictions. In such cases, Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie said there would be no penalty.
The penalty for catching the Nassua grouper in an aggregation spawning site between November and March is up to one year in prison or up to $500,000 in fines.
During the last 25 years, marine parks, conservation and enforcement efforts have led to the Cayman Islands being an example to the rest of the Caribbean of how sincere efforts in this regard can be successful. As a result, the Islands still have places where Nassau Grouper gather and spawn.
The western side of Little Cayman is one area in particular where grouper aggregation occurs on full moons during between November and March. That is where the Department of Environment assisted by the Reef Environmental and Education Foundation, with Drs. Brice and Christy Semmens being the chief scientists, conducted a study to tag, measure, count and place transmitters in some of the groupers to track patterns and see how the fish were responding to conservation efforts. The Reef Environmental and Education Foundation also secured and contributed the majority of funding for the crucial research and monitoring necessary to assess the status of the grouper population since 2001.
What researchers discovered on Little Cayman is that despite there still being a moderately healthy aggregate ritual occurring, the Nassau Grouper population is still under pressure and the species is still being fished out of season. This makes it more important to continue protecting the aggregate spots to ensure Nassau Groupers will be around for future generations to enjoy.
Not everyone welcomes the extension of the ban.
Cayman Brac’s Tenson Scott said a blanket ban is not the answer.
“There has only been a slight improvement on their numbers after years of not being able to fish their aggregate sites. That tells me that maybe this is something that is in vain. Furthermore, the lionfish,- which I think are a bigger problem, are eating the baby groupers. It seems to me like we are missing out on an opportunity to enjoy eating the Nassau grouper while they are disappearing anyway.
“It is not our culture to have these fish as pets and the whole thing is a money making thing.
Some people may be benefiting but it’s not Caymanians. We can’t take away our livelihood just so tourists can take pictures with these fish and name them. They don’t want us to eat pretty Parrot Fish either. We should at least be able to have some of the groupers; say five or six. It shouldn’t be a total ban.”
He said some of the banned areas encroach on fishing for Ocean Turbot.
“The ocean has so many problems right now. If we think we can make a difference with a little ban on fishing for Nassau grouper, we are incorrect. If this is such a Christian country and Jesus is really coming back, who are we saving the Nassau groupers for anyway.”