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Oculina Reserve Extension Still Hangs In The Balance -- July 17, 2003
Stronger Protections Sought for South Atlantic Groupers
--Feb. 14, 2003
Precautionary Fishing Limits Up for Grab in the U.S. Caribbean -- Nov. 4, 2002
Shrimp Trawl Bycatch Reductions Considered for the Gulf of Mexico -- Sept. 1, 2002
Protection Sought for U.S. Virgin Islands Spawning Yellowfin Groupers -- Aug. 20, 2002


Oculina Reserve Extension Still Hangs In The Balance

At its June meeting, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted unanimously to select an indefinite continuation of the Experimental Oculina Research Reserve as the Council's "preferred management alternative" for final vote and action at the agency's September meeting. The no-take zone off central east Florida will sunset in June 2004 unless the Council acts now to extend it.

Conservationists, as well as some fishers, were encouraged by the Council's vote, applauding it as a great step in the right direction.  However, advocates for sustainable fisheries management are hesitant to celebrate just yet.  Because hard lobbying will continue to influence the Council's final decision in September, marine conservation public interest groups like ReefKeeper International continue to organize grassroots action for continuation of the Reserve.  To seek public support in favor of the Reserve's indefinite continuation, ReefKeeper International is hosting a sign-on petition.

Established in 1994, the 92-acre Oculina Reserve was created to protect the area's unique branching Oculina coral and its associated fish populations from all trawling and bottom fishing for 10 years.  The Reserve encompasses thirty percent of the Oculina coral formations within the wider Oculina Banks area. First documented in the 1970's, these fragile tree-like coral formations lying off the central east coast of Florida have built reefs nowhere else in the world except at the Oculina Banks, where they support over 20 commercially important fish species.

The Council's preferred management alternative would continue the Oculina Reserve indefinitely.  Additionally, the Council would intend to review the Reserve's size and configuration in another 3 years, and reevaluate the Reserve's performance in 10 years.  "The Council's preliminary extension approval signal recognizes that this area, used by numerous stocks to spawn, feed, and mature, is irreplaceable and vital to healthy South Atlantic fisheries," said Alexander Stone, Director of ReefKeeper International.

Driving the Council's intent to take the precautionary Reserve extension measure are the continuing warning signs of failing fishery stocks.  The South Atlantic Council has determined that as many as fifteen of its managed reef fish stocks are overfished, with seven of those species known to utilize the Oculina habitat.  Additionally, the American Fisheries Society has listed gag and scamp grouper, species that historically formed large spawning aggregations in the Oculina Banks, as vulnerable to risk of extinction.  

Marine surveys have revealed that 90% of the fragile tree-like Oculina coral formations that used to provide shelter and habitat to large reef fish populations have been reduced to rubble by trawling and bottom fishing. "It will be decades before this essential fish habitat returns to its historic state, but without continuing the trawling and bottom fishing bans the Oculina formations will never rebuild, and the fish stocks that depend on them will never recover," said Stone.

The Oculina Reserve's fishing closure, although not strictly obeyed to date, has been nevertheless effective.  Studies have shown that both abundance and size of fish within the Reserve have increased since the Reserve was established in 1994.  Over time, it is the Council's hope that many of the Reserve's depleted spawning aggregations of snapper and grouper will rebuild and enhance South Atlantic fish stocks throughout the region.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council will take final action in September on whether to extend the Experimental Oculina Research Reserve.  Continuous uninterrupted protection for fish stocks in the Oculina Reserve is dependent upon extension approval before the original fishing ban sunsets in June 2004.  Public interest groups like ReefKeeper International are continuing to encourage the Council to expedite approval so that the Oculina coral formations and the area's vulnerable grouper and snapper stocks continue to be protected.  To facilitate public involvement in this issue, ReefKeeper International has posted an internet-based petition and other background materials on extending the Oculina Reserve .


Gulf Grouper Spawning Closures on Chopping Block

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is planning to roll back existing one-month spawning season closures for 3 grouper species in order to allow year-round fishing for all groupers. Conversely, ReefKeeper International has formally petitioned the Council for Gulfwide two-month spawning season staggered closures for shallow-water and deep-water grouper stocks in order to ensure the sustainability of 11 Gulf grouper species designated as vulnerable to risk of extinction by the American Fisheries Society. The Council instead is responding to industry concerns that any closures would result in lost local markets to foreign imports. To counter fishing industry pressure, ReefKeeper is conducting a web-based Save Our Groupers petition campaign.

At a time when the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the U.S. Caribbean Fishery Management Council are making spawning season closures a key component of grouper fishery management, the Gulf Council is planning to terminate the current Feburary 15th to March 15th spawning season closures for black, gag, and red grouper stocks.  Beyond that, the Gulf Council is making no plans to provide any regional spawning season protection to any of the 15 grouper species it is responsible for managing. Critics such as ReefKeeper International contend that year-round-fishing of grouper stocks is contributing to their rapid decline.

Several different information sources indicate that almost all grouper stocks in the Gulf of Mexico are in jeopardy.  In 1997, warsaw grouper and speckled hind were added to the Endangered Species Act Candidate Species List by the National Marine Fisheries Service Office of Protected Resources.  In 2000, 11 of the Gulf's 15 managed grouper species were officially identified as "vulnerable to risk of extinction" by the American Fisheries Society.  And the National Marine Fisheries Service has identified red grouper, Nassau grouper, and goliath grouper as overfished.  "The best scientific information available uniformly indicates that grouper stocks in the Gulf of Mexico are at serious risk of collapse," commented ReefKeeper International Director Alexander Stone. "If the fish are not allowed to reproduce, then eventually there won't be enough new fish to replenish the grouper populations, let alone sustain the fisheries," Stone said. 

A driving force behind the Gulf Council's present intent to allow year-round-fishing of grouper stocks is a fear that closures might harm the domestic fishing industry.  Many fishers insist that any interruption in access to Gulf grouper would result in market loss to less expensive grouper produced by the Mexican fishing industry.  They argue that, during the brief periods fishers would not be allowed to catch or sell grouper from U.S. waters, local markets would turn to lesser quality imports to satisfy market demand.  Fishers contend the result would be a sustained drop in market prices against which Gulf fishers could not compete. 

Even though the grouper fishery is just as important in the South Atlantic and Caribbean, neither of the regional councils for those areas have been persuaded by the loss-of-market argument. Instead, both the South Atlantic and U.S. Caribbean Councils are relying on grouper spawning season closures as an essential management tool benefiting the domestic fishery.  The loss-of-market argument against seasonal closures continues to influence only the Gulf Council.

Offering a solution intended to protect both fishers and fish, ReefKeeper has proposed a system of staggered grouper spawning season closures. The ReefKeeper proposal would combine a Spring shallow-water grouper closure, from March 1st to April 30th, with a Fall deep-water grouper closure, from July 15th to September 14th. "These closures would protect each and every grouper species during some part of its spawning season, which would lead to greater reproductive success and increases in grouper populations," declared ReefKeeper Director Stone.  "And, because the shallow-water and deep-water closed seasons would be staggered, this also would allow continued commercial and recreational fishing for some groupers during every month of the year," he said. ReefKeeper argues that this would provide a continuous year-round supply of Gulf grouper to local markets and solve the alleged loss-of-market problem.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is currently revising grouper fishing regulations through Amendment 18 to its Reef Fish Fishery Management Plan. ReefKeeper continues to seek public support for inclusion of grouper spawning season closures in Amendment 18 through a website Save Our Groupers petition. "The Gulf Council seems to have lost sight of the big picture.  If spawning grouper are not protected, these vulnerable-to-extinction stocks may very well crash and then there will be no grouper fishing industry to worry about," Stone concluded.


Stronger Protections Sought for
South Atlantic Groupers

February 14, 2003. Comprehensive management reform for South Atlantic grouper stocks is being called for by the coral reef conservation organization ReefKeeper International in response to information indicating that most grouper stocks are at risk of collapse.  The public interest group has requested that an integrated multi-point management program be adopted by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service to protect groupers from further depletion. To generate public support for the measures, the conservation group is hosting a Save America's Groupers internet petition campaign.

The unified management approach would include new reduced fishing quotas for all grouper species based on available population data for designated indicator stocks, partial spawning season fishing closures, and implementation of rebuilding plans that include no-take zones for all officially designated overfished grouper species. "Because the proposed management measures are interdependent and each serves a unique purpose, they must all be implemented if we're going to protect groupers and the fisheries that depend on them," stated ReefKeeper Director Alexander Stone.  Action on the ReefKeeper requests is under consideration by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, but their acceptance is uncertain. (For full text of the ReefKeeper requests, click here.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is currently working on a broad revision of federal grouper fishing regulations. Available scientific data would indicate that increased protection is overdue.  A November 2000 study by the American Fisheries Society identified 10 of the 18 South Atlantic grouper species as being vulnerable to extinction.  Similarly, the Council's own information indicates that 11 managed grouper stocks are presently overfished. "Precautionary fishery management measures and stock rebuilding plans must be put in place now, before it is too late," said Stone.

The 18 grouper species managed in the South Atlantic are naturally divided by where they are found into a shallow-water grouper complex and a deep-water grouper complex. Each complex consists of many grouper species mixed together throughout the ocean bottom. These two so-called mixed fishery complexes have made traditional techniques of managing stocks on an individual species basis unworkable when applied to groupers. Since multiple species are mingled together in the same fishing areas and depths, they are all caught together by the same fishing gear at the same time. 

As a result of this phenomenon, ReefKeeper contends that any catch restrictions placed on a single species are ineffective because fishers have no way to avoid catching the restricted species while pursuing other species in the same grouper complex. "To compensate for the mixed fishery effect on individual grouper species, we're asking that management measures be applied collectively to all shallow-water groupers as one multi-species complex, and to all deep-water groupers as another," commented ReefKeeper Director Stone.

Compounding management problems is the fact that, due to limited data and staff resources, the South Atlantic Council cannot actually determine the current population condition of many grouper stocks. According to ReefKeeper, the solution is to designate an "indicator species" of known population status for each of the 2 grouper complexes.  "Fishing quotas and management decisions for each of the 2 complexes could then be based on the known population condition of the indicator species in each of the 2 complexes," Stone explained.

In fact, it appears that the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council may be in at least partial agreement with ReefKeeper's reasoning. Recently the Council began to consider using the known population condition of Snowy Grouper as the basis for setting fishing quotas and making management decisions for the deep-water grouper complex.   But the Council has yet to make any move towards selection of an indicator species for the shallow-water grouper complex. 

Groupers are seasonal spawners that -- true to their name -- tend to congregate in large groups during spawning season. Shallow-water groupers do this generally in the Spring, while deep-water groupers do it in the Fall. There is widespread concern that fishing for spawning groupers is decreasing their reproductive success year by year. The result is further declines each year in already depressed grouper populations.

ReefKeeper is asking the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to give each grouper species a chance for undisturbed spawning. To do this, the conservation group is advocating establishment of a Spring two-month fishing closure for the shallow-water grouper complex and a Fall closure of the same duration for the deep-water grouper complex. "Staggering the spawning season closures this way would still allow a year-round flow of local grouper to fish markets and restaurants while gradually rebuilding grouper populations as more and more of them live to spawn before being caught," the ReefKeeper spokesman emphasized.

Several of the conservation group's requested management measures have already been included as potential options in the current draft of the revised regulations. These include implementation of science-based overfishing limits, partial spawning season fishing closures, and the setting of rebuilding plans for badly overfished Nassau and Goliath grouper stocks.  However, the regulation's present draft still lacks several management measures considered essential by ReefKeeper. The conservation group is continuing to advocate for inclusion in the draft regulation of management of grouper stocks on a complex-wide basis, and the adoption of rebuilding plans that include the use of no-take zones for all overfished grouper stocks in the South Atlantic.

The public interest organization remains hopeful.  "With continued public support, we feel confident the Council will do the right thing and adopt each of these measures which are fundamental to the recovery of South Atlantic groupers from their present depleted condition," added Stone.

The ReefKeeper grouper management requests are being considered for adoption under Amendment 13 to the South Atlantic Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan.  To generate public support for the requests, ReefKeeper is seeking sign-ons to a Save America's Groupers petition "America's groupers need greater protection now, before they are all driven to the brink of extinction," ReefKeeper Director Alexander Stone concluded.


Precautionary Fishing Limits
Up for Grab in the U.S. Caribbean

November 4, 2002 ­ The U.S. Caribbean Fishery Management Council is back at the drawing board trying to develop more precautionary fishing limits for the U.S. Caribbean, after having its proposed reef fish catch limits rejected earlier this year by the National Marine Fisheries Service at the urging of ReefGuardian International. With most U.S. Caribbean reef fish stocks suspected of already being at extremely depressed levels -- and many feared to be vulnerable to extinction -- ReefGuardian and other conservation groups are watchdogging the process carefully to make sure precautionary fishing limits are actually adopted this time around.

[Click here to support the adoption of precautionary U.S. Caribbean fishing levels.]

In early August and mid-October workshops, the Council began re-evaluating the setting of overfishing controls for Caribbean fishery stocks -- for which minimal or no population data exists. The results of these meetings will determine the shape and effectiveness of the Council's next round of proposed fishing limits and management measures for U.S. Caribbean fisheries. The Council meets again in December to continue discussions.

The Sustainable Fisheries Act requires the U.S. Caribbean Fishery Management Council to adopt catch limits that prevent -- or reverse -- overfishing. Four years after the legal deadline of October 1998, the Council is still in the process of amending its Reef Fish Fishery Management Plan to establish these catch limits. Meanwhile, fishing continues without the precautionary limits that would define sustainable fishing levels, when a stock would be classified as "overfished", and when a stock rebuilding plan would need to be put in place.

A big problem facing the Council is that almost all of the 179 Caribbean stocks it manages have so little population data available that they are classified as "data poor." This means that managers do not actually know the size of the fishery stocks or what level of fishing pressure they can sustain. However, ReefGuardian contends that steadily declining landings over the past 20 years strongly imply that current fishing levels are not sustainable and must be reduced. In addition, many Caribbean reef fish species were classified in 2001 by the American Fisheries Society as being "vulnerable to extinction." ReefGuardian therefore is advocating as crucial that catch limits be reset at lower, precautionary levels to account for lack of population data and existing information that indicates fishing unsustainability.

 [Click here for more information on adopting sustainable fishing levels.]

Since 1991, ReefGuardian International has been working for the adoption of precautionary fishery management measures in the U.S. Caribbean. ReefGuardian led the fight in 2001-2002 to get the Caribbean Council's first round of proposed reef fish catch limits rejected by the National Marine Fisheries Service as unsustainable and non-responsive to suspected overfishing. ReefGuardian continues to work with the Caribbean Council to develop sustainable reef fish catch levels. as well as other management measures to re-establish abundant populations of groupers and other reef fish in the U.S. Caribbean.

[Click here to show support for the Save America's Groupers Campaign.]

 


Shrimp Trawl Bycatch Reductions
Considered for the Gulf of Mexico

Sept. 1, 2002 -- The Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council has voted to require shrimp trawling bycatch reduction devices throughout all Gulf federal waters. Final approval is needed from the National Marine Fisheries Service to implement the Council's plan to require bycatch reduction devices on all shrimp trawling nets used in Gulf federal waters and reduce the amount of fish caught and killed in those nets by 35%.

<click here to email your support to National Marine Fisheries Service>

Prior to the May 2002 decision by the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, an estimated 1.5 billion pounds of fish were being killed and discarded as bycatch annually by the Gulf shrimping fleet. Once the National Marine Fisheries Service ratifies the Council's vote, this amount will be significantly reduced.

<click here to learn more about bycatch reduction in the Gulf of Mexico>

Since 1994, ReefGuardian International has advocated before regulatory agencies and organized public support for reduced shrimp trawling bycatch. ReefGuardian International is now working with the National Marine Fisheries Service to achieve early approval and implementation of this very important decision for fisheries conservation management.

<click here to donate to our Reef Fish for the Future Campaign>

 


Protection Sought for
U.S. Virgin Islands Spawning Yellowfin Groupers

August 20, 2002 -- Partial closure of a U.S. Virgin Islands yellowfin grouper spawning aggregation to all fishing has been proposed by the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council. As proposed, this closure of the Grammanic Bank would only be in effect for the first half of the yellowfin grouper spawning season. ReefGuardian International is working to have this spawning aggregation fully protected from fishing for the entire spawning season. At its upcoming November meeting,the Council will debate how much protection to give this spawning aggregation.

click here to support protection for grouper spawning aggregations

Each year, from February to May, large numbers of yellowfin grouper migrate to the small area of Grammanic Bank in the U.S. Virgin Islands to reproduce. Because this packs yellowfin groupers into dense schools at predictable times, the spawning aggregation is vulnerable to being fished to extinction -- just like many other grouper spawning aggregations have been throughout the Caribbean. If spawning yellowfin groupers are killed during this key time and not allowed to reproduce, then the future of the species may be jeopardized. ReefGuardian considers it critical that the Grammanic Bank spawning aggregation be protected.

click here for more info on the Grammanic Bank spawning aggregation

Since 1989, ReefGuardian International has been advocating for the protection of grouper spawning aggregations. Right now, ReefGuardian is also seeking protection for the El Seco tiger grouper spawning aggregation,found off Puerto Rico's Vieques Island, as well as other spawning season closures to help rebuild grouper populations throughout the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic.

click here to donate to the Save Our Groupers campaign

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