Nassau groupers making comeback

A decade of protecting Nassau grouper spawning sites is paying off, researchers say.

Reefs in Little Cayman where groupers have been spawning are showing a “growing and healthy population” of the endangered Nassau grouper, scientists have found.

“After 10 years, the detective work is finally done,” said conservationist and marine wildlife artist Guy Harvey.

Mr. Harvey, who has worked closely with researchers from the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, known as REEF, Oregon State University and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment to bring about legislation to protect the species, said: “The work is finally done and science indicates the groupers need to have aggregation sites projected to help them survive.”

In 2003, an eight-year fishing ban was introduced at Nassau group spawning sites in the Cayman Islands to protect the species, which is being pushed to extinction throughout the Caribbean due to over fishing. Last year, the Marine Conservation Board of the Cayman Islands extended that ban for a further eight years.

Researchers visited the spawning area in Little Cayman in February to collect egg samples for genetic research and noted a marked increase in the number of groupers.

“It was the biggest spawn we’ve ever seen,” Mr. Harvey said. “With the right cooperation, the Nassau grouper will become a symbol of conservation for threatened marine species – a shining example of what can be achieved if all the stakeholders work together.”

Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, is recommending a ban on fishing of Nassau grouper during spawning season, which runs from 1 November to 31 March, and the enforcement of catch limits for hook and line for the remainder of the year.

The government is considering extending the fishing ban during the spawning season and implementing an open and closed season for groupers on an annual basis. Those proposals are currently being drafted and will be presented to Cabinet.

The penalty for catching Nassau grouper in a spawning aggregation site between November and March is up to one year in prison or up to $500,000 in fines.

Brice Semmens, who along with his wife, Christy, has spearheaded the REEF research efforts, said: “I think we will find in the years to come, as we monitor these populations, we’re going to see a dramatic response in terms of the number of new fish on the reefs for divers to see and fishermen to catch.”

Mr. Semmens said a healthy and growing Nassau grouper population will seed local reefs surrounding the Cayman Islands and be at the epicentre for the recovery of the species throughout the Caribbean.

“The Cayman Islands, through their cooperation and support, have put themselves on the international conservation map,” Mr. Semmens said. “The government officials made the correct and appropriate decisions based on science.”

The plight of the endangered Nassau grouper was highlighted last year in Mr. Harvey’s film The Mystery of the Grouper Moon, edited by Emmy Award winning producer George C. Schellenger. A recent re-mastering of the film, which includes footage of the 2012 spawning, makes its debut at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in Miami, Florida on Saturday, 21 April.

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