NASSAU GROUPER: VULNERABLE, ENDANGERED… & NOW PROTECTED
The Nassau grouper Epinephelus striatus is one of a number of Caribbean grouper species found generally in the Northern Bahamas and specifically in Abaco waters. Others include the Black, Tiger, and Yellowfin groupers, the Red Hind,and the Graysby. The Nassau grouper is special, however, not least because (unlike the others) it is on the IUCN Red List as an Endangered Species and is also a US National Marine Fisheries Service Species of Concern. It is considered the most important of the groupers for commercial fishing in the Caribbean, and the IUCN listing data suggests that a population decline of 60% occurred over the last three generations (27-30 years), a startling rate. The current population size is estimated at >10,000 mature individuals.
The Nassau Grouper is a creature of the coral reefs in the Caribbean and adjacent seas, though it can also be found in deep water. It feeds in the daytime on small fish and small crustaceans such as shrimps, crabs and lobsters. It lurks in caves and recesses in the reef, sucking in the prey that passes unsuspecting by. The coloration of an individual fish may vary considerably with conditions, and it can adapt its colour to its surroundings as camouflage.
Spawning takes place in December and January as the seawater cools, always at full moon, and always in the same place. In the moonlight, huge numbers of the grouper gather together to mate in a mass spawning aggregation. This may continue for several days. However, the species is slow breeder, which is why overfishing is particularly damaging to the population as the depleted stock cannot readily be replaced.
There are other besides factors commercial overfishing that make the Nassau grouper so vulnerable, including fishing during the breeding season; taking undersized fish; pollution and reef decline; habitat loss; and invasive species. The spawning areas are especially vulnerable to exploitation. In the Bahamas, as elsewhere, the government has now instituted a closed fishing season for the Nassau grouper. Here is the BREEF flyer, just circulated – and in fact the reason for this post, which reminded me that I had planned to write about this fish!
The Bahamas National Trust sums up the multiple threats in this uncompromising way:
Nassau grouper is eaten by barracudas, lizard fish, dolphins, sharks and other large predators of the reef community. But the predators that have the biggest impact on the grouper population are humans. People are fishing groupers before they can grow to maturity and reproduce. Sex change may also cause a problem. In undisturbed areas there are usually equal numbers of male and females. In heavily fished areas there are often three or more times more females than males. This means many eggs will not be fertilized during spawning. Other threats include, habitat destruction, coral breakage from divers, siltation from construction, runoff from logging and agriculture, dredging, sewage, oil spills and other contaminants that harm coral reefs where Nassau Groupers live.
There’s an extent to which a country can be judged on its attitude to wildlife from the stamps it chooses to issue. It’s something to do with appreciation and promotion of the country’s natural resources. For example, North Korea rates nil in this respect, with stamps involving scary weaponry, flags, marching and eerily glowing leaders – not a single sparrow to be seen. By fortunate contrast the Bahamas and its Postal Service score very highly in celebrating the diversity of the wildlife of the islands. The Nassau Grouper was first featured on Bahamas stamps as long ago as 1971, some 25 years before the IUCN Red Listing, and probably before the sharp decline in population numbers had even begun.
In 2012 the Bahamas Postal Service released ‘a new definitive 16 stamp series’ depicting the marine life of The Bahamas. The Nassau has been promoted from 5c in 1971 to 70c in 2012. That’s inflation for you.
Finally in 2013 BREEF’s 20 years of marine conservation was commemorated with a distinguished and colourful set of 8 stamps, noting in their release: ‘Two of the new stamps feature the Nassau Grouper, a now endangered species that has experienced severe population decline throughout the region… BREEF is well known as an advocate for an annual closed season for the iconic Nassau Grouper during its winter breeding period. The push for the closed season was based on scientific evidence of population collapses throughout the region due to overfishing. BREEF is calling on the government to implement a fixed closed season for the Nassau Grouper in order to protect the species and the fishing industry. The closed season traditionally runs during the spawning season from December 1st until February 28th, to allow the fish to reproduce. BREEF is calling urgently for the announcement of this year’s Nassau Grouper closed season….’ And so it came to pass… Not only is the Nassau grouper now worth 2 x 65c; it is strictly protected for 3 months during its breeding season. Maybe philately even had a hand in getting somewhere…
Credits: Melinda Riger, Rick Smit, Open Source, BNT, BREEF, Wikimedia, Bahamas Postal Service