Green Reef study shows Grouper numbers declining - by Joe Miller

Every year, during the full moons of December and January, thousands of Nassau Grouper come together to spawn. Fishing during this time is so popular in Belize that it has diminished both the size and numbers of these fish.

    Green Reef has put a plan in motion to quantify the problem through observation of the aggregations, and measuring and weighing of fish actually caught. It was my pleasure to be selected to go along as a photographer and observer to aid in documenting this endeavor.

    Seven different expeditions traveled to the best-known grouper spots in Belize to monitor fishing activity. Our expedition was led by Mito Paz, local director of Green Reef. A valuable volunteer was Dan Ellison, who also works for Green Reef. Dan Wagner, a well-known underwater videographer from Florida and I made up the photo crew. Our expedition left for Rendezvous Point on Turneffe Atoll on the morning of January 8 in the 25 foot skiff, "Ceci," piloted by Captain Victor Lara. We set up our dive and scientific camp adjacent to the fishing camp at Rendezvous. This gave us convenient access to the dive site as well as the ability to measure and weigh the daily grouper catch.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun

    The stories I had heard over the years had piqued my interest in making this journey. Old-timers had told me of thousands of Nassau Groupers in giant columns many feet deep, the females releasing their eggs into the water as the males converged to fertilize  them. I was soon disappointed. The large numbers are not there. The Nassau Grouper population is not only diminished from all accounts; it's only a tiny fraction of what it used to be. The cause is fishing during the spawning season. Commercial fishermen know that when these masses of fish flesh come together, there is no better time to snag them for re-sale. Our group saw small gatherings of fish, 4-8 at the most. There were a few exceptions where we saw maybe 10 or 12, but those sightings were rare.

    Fishermen are especially rewarded with their catch this time of year. The fertile females contain sacks of roe, or eggs, that sell for $6-8 per pound. The rest of the fish sell in the market in Belize City for $2 per pound. The average daily catch this year seemed to be about 300 pounds of fish with maybe 15-20 pounds of roe. In effect, fishermen are rewarded not only for depleting the resources during a vulnerable time, but for cashing in on the future, as well. No eggs to fish next year.

    We Belizeans, both born and naturalized, fully understand the value of a season for conch and lobster to allow them to reproduce. Heavy fines are levied against those who take from our future. Raise up your voices to help Green Reef lobby to put in a season for Nassau Grouper. Surely we can work together to sustain this vital part our fragile ecosystem-which brings in tourism dollars-while reaching a compromise with the fishing industry.

    Thanks to Amigos del Mar, Offshore Express and Turneffe Flats for logistical, transportation and emergency support.

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