Extension Still Hangs In The Balance -- July 17, 2003
Stronger Protections Sought for South Atlantic Groupers --Feb.
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
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
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
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
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 .
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
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
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.
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
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
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,"
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
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.
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
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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
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