Fishing bans needed to halt groupers' slide to extinction, say scientists
May 16 2012 Lewis Smith
A quarter of the world’s groupers face the threat of extinction and and overfishing is the prime cause, researchers have concluded.
Twenty species are already been classified as under threat, of which three are critically endangered, and fishing controls such as the creation of marine protected areas are needed to protect them, scientists said.
A further 22 species of grouper are described as “near threatened”. Scientists are alarmed that there is too little data available to assess another 50 species.
Groupers are a popular dish in many parts of the world and it is estimated that at least 90 million weighing more than 275,000 tonnes in total were landed in 2009.
Pressure on groupers, tropical coral fish, has intensified dramatically in recent decades. The quantity landed has increased by 25 per cent since 1999 when 214,000 tonnes was taken and by 1,600 per cent since 1950 when the catch was just 16,000 tonnes.
The fish are one of the most expensive coral species available at fish markets because of the quality of their flesh but many of the 163 species worldwide are now struggling to survive.
Dr Luis Rocha, of the California Academy of Sciences and one of the authors of a paper assessing the threat to groupers, said: “Groupers are among the most desirable fishes. Unfortunately, the false perception that marine resources are infinite is still common in our society, and in order to preserve groupers and other marine resources we need to reverse this old mentality."
The emergence of the Live Reef Food Fish Trade (LRFFT) in China and South East Asia in which the fish are kept alive so that they can be picked out of tanks by restaurant customers and cooked straight away, was identified as a growing cause of grouper declines.
“With a market valued at almost US $1 billion per year and accounting for nearly 20 per cent of the reported global grouper catch, the LRFFT has virtually extirpated some species from areas nearest to its trade centre in Hong Kong, forcing suppliers to seek fish from ever distant localities,” the report stated.
“The demand for live groupers for the international LRFFT, as just one example, already exceeds the estimated annual rate of sustainable grouper production of Indo-Pacific coral reefs and is probably the principal driver of growth and/or recruitment overfishing in several countries.
Scientists involved in the paper, published in the journal Fish and Fisheries, said stronger controls on fishing are vital to preventing several species being driven into extinction.
The creation of marine protected areas where catching groupers is banned was seen by the report’s authors as one of the measures most likely to be successful at helping the fish survive.
They also urged the imposition of other fishing controls such as bans on catching groupers during the breeding season, especially the species which gather together in large numbers to spawn, and even banning the sales of groupers in some countries.
“Marine protected areas and/or seasonal protection during the reproductive season can be used to protect spawning aggregations; in some countries, these measures could be effectively used together or combined with sales bans to aid enforcement,” they said.
“The major threat to groupers, because of their high commercial and food value, comes from overexploitation and lack of effective management.”
They observed that the critically endangered Goliath grouper, Epinephelus itajara, is showing signs of recovery of the Florida coast following a ban on its capture introduced in in US waters in 1990. It was, they said, rarely seen 20 years ago but has now recovered enough to be regarded as a nuisance by fishermen.
“In our opinion, this demonstrates that through proper public-private co-management policies and actions, grouper species can recover if fishing effort is effectively controlled,” they added.
Similarly, the red hind, Epinephelus guttatus, has increased in number noticeably off the US Virgin Islands after fishing was banned in the spawning aggregation zone.
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