Mar 25, 2011


by Guy Harvey

Our late evening dives were scheduled for 6 p.m. just as the sun was dipping below the horizon. Some DoE staff used rebreather gear to get deeper than the rest of the researchers, and could also stay longer to film the spawning.

The sight of the excited milling groupers was as impressive as many of the great underwater experiences I have witnessed. I have filmed schools of bluefin tuna, great white sharks, marlin, sailfish, whale sharks, whales and dolphins. I’ve done racing drift dives in the Galapagos and on the Great Barrier Reef— this one ranks right up there among them. As it grew dark, the males chased the gravid females in pre-spawning behavior called “caging”. Using bright lights, the footage we took of this behavior was tremendous. As a result of caging, the females shot upwards of twenty feet or more, the other males rushed in from the side to join the action and the gametes were released in a cloud that reduced the visibility temporarily.  As the night came on, this process was repeated many times before we had to leave them.

We saw tiger groupers, yellowfin groupers and black groupers, all congregating at the SPAG at the same time as the Nassau groupers. Black jacks, horseye jacks and bar jacks were getting things going as well.

With the spawning complete, the groupers started to head back to their home patch reef, thus, their numbers dwindled. All of them, returning along the steep reefs of Little Cayman to take up their former positions.

It is important to protect spawning areas

The protection of groupers on the SPAGs was working. The regulations have been adequate so far, but as the groupers start to recover, they require more protection, not more fishing. Scott Heppell could not have put it better in his interview with me; “Like growing your bank account, increasing the stock size yields higher dividends without cutting into your principle. Ultimately, the sacrifice involved with rebuilding stocks will put us in a position to catch more fish.” This is what the (disgruntled) fishermen in the Cayman Islands need to comprehend.

There are challenges during the rebuilding process while we are investing more groupers in the “bank”, which is where we currently stand in Little Cayman. During the rebuilding process there are more fish in the water long before the rebuilding goal is attained. The existence of more fish, through conservation efforts by the DoE, could lead to higher catch rates, which would cause a short circuit in the rebuilding process, putting us back to where we were ten years ago. The challenge is to limit catch rates during rebuilding and then manage the bigger bank account without eating into your capital (brood stock) once the stock is rebuilt.

At present, the DoE does a very good job of keeping user groups informed about conservation measures and holds several town meetings annually to appraise fishermen about the natural history of the Nassau grouper and the relevance of their conservation measures. These meetings are well advertized and promoted. I was staggered at the last meeting held in West Bay in February when not one person from the community showed up.

My recommendations for additional conservation measures are as follows;

1)  Review and check that the existing boundaries of the SPAGS are accurate.

2)  Extend the no fish zone to two miles around each SPAG, but keeping the same period of exclusion, November 1 to March 31. (Remember many other species of grouper, snapper and jacks spawn in the SPAGs at the same time as the Nassau grouper.) SPAGs are VERY important to protect for the benefit of the reef ecosystem.

3)  Total protection for Nassau groupers in all three islands during spawning season, November 1 to March 31. No catch, no sale, no possession. Nassau groupers are getting ready to spawn during these months and those that have survived the year should be allowed to spawn. At this stage of the recovery every single fish is important.

4)  Raise the minimum length of eligible Nassau grouper from 12 inches to 18 inches. A 12 inch fish is a juvenile and has not yet spawned. It is reasonable to allow fish to spawn once to replace themselves before they are recruited into a fishery.

5)  Allow limited fishing for Nassau groupers for the remainder of the year outside of marine parks, but, with a limit of one fish per boat per day. Undersized fish brought to the surface may easily be released and returned to the reef using the correct weighted barbless hook technique. If it has not been done so, the DoE can demonstrate this effective conservation method to fishermen.

Looking at the bigger picture, Little Cayman, with its unique red footed boobies and frigate bird colonies, the indigenous rock iguana, the tarpon lake, Bloody Bay wall and the Nassau grouper, all add up to a very special place that we need to conserve. The title “World Heritage Site” comes to mind.

It will be great to get feedback from the public. You can write a letter by email to;

The Premier, Honourable McKeeva Bush

The Minister of the Environment, Mark Scotland

Marine Conservation Board Chairman, Don Foster

Secretary of the MCB, Phillippe Bush

Director of the Dept of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie

Letters may be sent to Gina Ebanks-Petrie, Dept of Environment, CI Government, PO Box 486, Grand Cayman KY1-1106.

It is our collective responsibility to conserve the marine environment and maintain the biodiversity of the planet.

Dive safely, fish responsibly.

—Guy Harvey PhD.

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