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.

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  1. I whole heartedly applaud the successes of the Nassau Grouper recovery effort in the Sister Isles, but am continually dismayed that at the same time these announcements are made we are not hearing similar details about the desperate state of Grand Cayman’s population and the dire need for us to do more to protect the few remaining here. With zero Nassau Groupers returning to the SW Point spawning ground since closure in 2003 and less than 500 being seen last year at the East End spawning ground, they are arguably nearly locally extinct. Huge congregations once gathered at both sites, having come from all around the island. With the size of this island compared to Little Cayman, one might expect that over 100,000 once gathered at these sites before tourism began in the 1950’s. As human numbers went up theirs went down. Like a bank account, the bigger your principle (fish population), the more interest earned annually and the more you can afford to take each year without dipping into the principle. With so few here it makes zero sense to take even one from the local recovery effort, let alone 5 per person per day. Stop the madness please. Protect our precious resource. This is the single friendliest, most photogenic fish that we have in our tourism attraction. They pose with every diver who approaches their reef. Each one is worth untold tourism income that astronomically exceeds its value dead on a plate. They are literally Cayman’s diving ambassadors! Left to recover to pre-tourism numbers, they will also become once again our most valuable food fish if then regulated sustainably. Please leave them on the reef now and let our grandchildren reap the profits later! Don’t wait for new regulations… choose to personally not catch, buy or eat grouper (and parrotfish)… ask DOE and our legislators for more protection of these crucial species. Get them off the menu while this tiny seed stock remains. Every fish counts in the recovery effort.