Even though Cayman’s Nassau grouper numbers are increasing, government restrictions on catching the fish will continue.

Those restrictions, which include a prohibition on fishing at spawning sites, a closed season that runs from 1 Dec. to 30 April, and size and catch limits, will remain in place “indefinitely,” Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, said Thursday at an informal media briefing at the Government Administration Building.

His comments follow the release of the study on the recovery of the critically endangered Nassau grouper in the Cayman Islands as a result of targeted conservation actions, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. The study showed the grouper population in the annual spawning aggregation on Little Cayman had increased from 1,200 fish in 2009 to more than 7,000 in 2018.

No free-for-all

Despite the positive report, Austin made it clear there will be no free-for-all when it comes taking the grouper out of local waters.
“Although it is encouraging to see that this has happened, Nassau grouper is still critically endangered,” he said.

He said that, throughout the region, the grouper is suffering, and the results from the study should be taken in context – that Cayman is back to where it was 15 years ago, with more than 6,000 groupers.

However, he said, the populations on Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman are still “critically low”.

“We are seeing increases in Little Cayman and in the Brac,” Austin said. “We would like to see corresponding increases in Grand Cayman, and as long as that continues in an upward trend, I would like to say that we are at a sustainable level of fishing as long as people follow the rules and regulations and the marine protected areas structure that is in place.”

He said it is a difficult message that the DoE is selling when it comes to the catch limitations, but he said it is important that the restrictions are followed.

“Because, while on one hand, this is a success story to get to this point, it still needed to be taken into the context that it took us 15 years to get back to this point where we were in 2001,” he said.

In 2003, the Cayman Islands Marine Conservation Board put no-take zones in place on all known Nassau grouper fish-spawning aggregations during the spawning season. And, in 2016, the Cayman Islands government enacted regulations that included the seasonal closure on Nassau grouper harvest from December through April and catch size limits.

Positive response from science community

Austin said the response from the scientific community to the study’s findings has been “absolutely astounding”.

“This is a success story, and in fisheries science there is not many success stories, so, it is good to see. I think it shows very clearly that it can be done, and most of the scientists are very pleased. It just shows you, with the right blend of politics, the NGOs and the community and scientists management, restrictions that make a difference can be implemented,” he said.

The study, from researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, indicated that the annual aggregation of Nassau groupers in Little Cayman is now the largest remaining identified aggregation of the fish in the world.

The researchers attributed the successful recovery of the local Nassau grouper to an approach involving government agencies, academic researchers and non-profit organisations.

It was a point DoE senior researcher Croy McCoy affirmed, saying that without the support of the fishermen in particular, the recovery of the species would not have been the same.

He added that the steady support of successive governments also played a great factor is sustaining the efforts to help protect the endangered species.

“To have a steady course with a common goal is very hard to find. That is one of the driving factors behind the success of this – the persistent support, unwavering support of the Cayman government and the community as a whole,” he added.

McCoy said the fish at the Little Cayman aggregation site have become seeders for the groupers on the three islands. He said he hopes in his lifetime the numbers on Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman will increase as it has on Little Cayman.