Grouper Moon - Researching SPAG Sites
Nassau grouper is in decline worldwide and throughout the Caribbean. This study investigates the causes. Not simple.
This past December, I joined an expedition off Long Island, Bahamas. A team of researchers, educators and citizen-science explorers were on board the M/V Glen Ellen conducting a five-day study of three Nassau grouper Spawning Aggregations (SPAG) in North Long Island. What is a SPAG site? During the full moon phases in December, January and February, Nassau grouper gather at these places for a massive festival of procreation.
Hundreds to thousands of individual fish come to spawn and ensure the survival of the species. Fishermen have long known about this phenomenon, commonly called a Grouper Moon. At one time, these events were seen as a fishing bonanza, but in a world where fish—especially tasty ones like Nassau grouper—are highly pressured, fishing these sites at these times has become strictly forbidden. The expedition produced some incredible encounters, and only some of them were with the fish. At times, it was wild and raw and the results were a very mixed bag. I call it the bad, the ugly and the good.
The Bad; 14.December.2013
Cape Santa Maria, Long Island Bahamas: Nassau grouper is in decline worldwide and throughout the Caribbean. Whether from overfishing, poaching or the changes in ocean chemistry, the facts are real. Historically, Nassau grouper SPAGs had tens of thousands of fish gathering for their mating ritual. In 1971, C. Lavett-Smith recorded 30,000 to 100,000 Nassau grouper off Bimini. Today, the numbers seen at the aggregation sites are only in the hundreds, and unless we act now to restore and protect this apex species of the coral reefs, they will become extinct.
Dr. Craig Dahlgren of the Caribbean Marine Research Center was on board the Glen Ellen as the lead researcher. He has been studying these same Long Island Nassau grouper schools for more than a decade and has recorded significant decline in the numbers of fish. Craig’s message to us was simple: “Nassau grouper stocks are extremely low, and in order for the species to survive, these stocks must remain healthy to produce SPAG activity. The Bahamas needs to get serious to protect and save the Nassau grouper before we lose the species.”
On this trip, the greatest number of fish recorded in a single SPAG was about 500. Only 10% of these had eggs, and we witnessed only three “rushes.” A rush is when a fish group—a female surrounded by several males—darts to the surface from the depths. While the female releases her eggs, the males surrounding her provide the sperm. What we witnessed was not a very encouraging number of fish, nor level of spawning activity.
The Ugly; 16.December.2013
Hail Mary Aggregation, Long Island Bahamas: Another very real issue, one that is directly affecting not only the Bahamas fishery economy, but the very health of our waters, as well the health of our community, is the ugly practice of poaching. This is being done by foreigners and Bahamian fishermen alike. This blatant, unsustainable practice must be stopped.
Despite the fact that Nassau grouper season is closed from December 1 through February 28, forbidding the capture, sale and purchase of Nassau grouper, the entire time on board the Glen Ellen we encountered fishermen with wire fish traps. Each day, at each location we dove, they were there apparently fishing for the grouper and we saw no sign of law enforcement. Dr. Dahlgren has reported the same clandestine activity each of the years of his study around Long Island. This was even more disturbing for me and for another member of our team, Lindy Knowles of the Bahamas National Trust. As local residents of the community, we know these fishermen. They are friends, neighbors, family ... Bahamians!
This day, while the fishing vessel was approaching the Glen Ellen, they were working six or seven fishing pots, located just 20 to 40 yards away from our research vessel. I shouted to one fisherman, “What you doin’ man?” as I threw my hands into the air in disgust. The fisherman replied, “We gotta do what we gotta do ... just tryin’ to make some money, bro. You know how things is... but you all do your research!” They motored away toward the horizon, only to return again that evening.
Later That Night...
Later that night, the team decided to invite the three Bahamian fishermen aboard our vessel to have a chat, a bite to eat and a cool drink. It took a bit of convincing them that there was no “Five-O” on the boat, but eventually they came aboard. We gave them our word that this was not an official move, just a real gesture toward some honest communication. We wanted to speak with the fishermen about their plight and how we could all work together to help save the species, their fishery, their livelihoods and to ask why they were willing to risk breaking the law to make a couple dollars.
Their responses followed the reasoning behind many illicit trades—that they are forced to do this because of dwindling opportunity in the legal market. They cited the decreasing fishing economy nationwide. For this, they blamed the foreign poachers. Dominicans were the most common accused, but they also put blame on the cruising yachts, other Bahamians and significant blame was placed on their nation’s enforcement agency. They claim there is a total lack of any enforcement by the Royal Bahamas Defense Force to apprehend and prosecute the violators, so nobody has any fear of breaking the law. Their stories were many and disheartening.
One fisherman, who claimed this was the first time he has fished for Nassau grouper illegally, has been a commercial fisherman for 25 years. He explained how he has bills to pay, loans and children in college, and he needs money just to put food on the table for his family. With today’s smaller catches and higher operating costs, it is very difficult to meet his financial needs. Another fisherman put the blame on the buyers of the illicit product. The fisherman claimed, “As long as there are fish houses, restaurants and people in the community to purchase the Nassau grouper, [he] will supply the demand.”
After hearing their stories, we explained the long-term affect their activities will have on the survival of the Nassau grouper. We explained that if they continue to fish the aggregations, there will not be a sufficient number of fish to sustain a healthy population and it will become extinct, and how this will affect the health of the entire marine environment. We explained how, in a very real sense, they are destroying their own livelihoods by their actions. Surprisingly, each one said they understood and agreed with our comments.
As the fishermen departed into the night, our team on board the Glen Ellen felt pretty good about the meeting and conversations with the fisherman. We retired to our beds “cautiously optimistic” that the fishermen understood the grave situation we were describing, and we hoped we made a lasting effect. Lindy Knowles was not so upbeat. He was sure they had deaf ears and that they would be back.
Despite our enthusiastic good feeling, Lindy was correct. While most of us were sleeping, the same fishermen returned in the early morning hours to fish the school some more. Dr. Dahlgren witnessed this as he got up when he heard their vessel approaching.
As our group continued their dives throughout the following day, the third team was at the buoy site around 2pm, working 80 to 100 feet down. Here came the poachers motoring up to the site, so we hailed them that divers were in the water. We had our dive flags up and we said to them explicitly, “From our dive buoy to the stern of the boat, divers are in the water.” Despite this, they sped up to approach the buoy directly over our dive site and threw three baited traps into the water. One trap missed dropping on the head of Dr. Crag Dahlgren by only 10 feet, creating a dust ball on the bottom and an immediate frenzy of grouper, along with five very large bull sharks.
This was a very serious and dangerous situation. The two divers in the water, Dr. Dahlgren and Casuarina McKinney, saw what was happening and were immediately able to open up two of the three traps to release the grouper. They were able to save all but 11 fish, which the fishermen promptly dumped into their coolers. As the fishermen departed, they emptied bloody water and bait back into the sea, directly over Craig and Casuarina—not very smart with five bull sharks in the area. The sharks quickly began to feed on the cut baitfish on the surface. Fortunately, the two divers are very experienced and know how to handle sharks in this kind of situation. Back on the surface, Craig told us about the effect of the traps. “The speed that those groupers hit the trap was amazing,” he said. “They were actually fighting to get into the trap and the sharks were equally excited and on the school immediately.”
The Good 17.December.2013
Hail Mary Aggregation, Long Island Bahamas: As grim as our experience was, and as many challenges as we faced, there are some good things to take away. The first is that we do know what the problems are, which means we have a legitimate opportunity to make changes and develop real solutions. This must include adequate enforcement of current fishing regulations. It must also include creating alternative business opportunities to replace the lost economic impact of the Nassau grouper. Perhaps moving to another fishery, such as a deep-water snapper or lionfish, could help provide this relief. In the end, however, success will have to come through getting all the affected groups on the same page. This means good communication with industry professionals, community and the enforcement agencies, and providing effective education to the Bahamian people through community outreach programs. Each group is part of the problem and each must be part of the solution.
Joe Ierna heads the Ocean Crest Alliance, an NGO dedicated to fisheries conservation and finding sustainable solutions for the future health of the oceans. Also participating in this study were Dr. Craig Dahlgren, lead scientist/researcher from the Caribbean Marine Research Center; Lindy Knowles, senior officer of the Bahamas National Trust; Krista Sherman, GEF FSP coordinator of the Bahamas National Trust; Casuarina McKinney-Lambert, executive director of Bahamas Reef Environment Education Foundation (BREEF); Denise Mizell, educator, Lyford Cay International School; Richard Clark, businessman, Dive Team; Tony Puyol, videographer and co-creator of Boarder War; Wayne Sullivan, owner of the M/V Glen Ellen, Peter M. Schecter, captain/safety officer; and Karen Straney, chef. For more information, visit www.oceancrestalliance.com.
Special Thanks to the people at Guy Harvey Magazine and Publisher Fred Garth for the cool content.