Overfishing Threatens|the Nassau Grouper

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Tuesday that the Nassau grouper has been proposed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The fish face overfishing pressures because they spawn in predictable areas at specific times based on the phase of the moon.
     The groupers are large long-lived fish mainly found in shallow waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. They grow up to four feet long and can weigh as much as 55 pounds. It is estimated that they live up to 29 years and do not reach sexual maturity until they are nine or ten years old.
     Because the fish tend to be sedentary and are easily found in large groups or “aggregations” in shallow waters during spawning, they are highly susceptible to overfishing. “There are reports from across the Caribbean where Nassau grouper spawning aggregations have repeatedly been discovered, fished, and then ceased to exist, or exist at such low densities that spawning fails,” the agency noted in the listing proposal. It is estimated that of the 50 known historical spawning aggregation sites, only 20 may still remain, and where the aggregations formerly numbered in the tens of thousands, some as much as 100,000, they are now reduced to less than 3,000 individuals in surveyed areas.
     The once abundant and commercially important species is now considered to be “commercially extinct” in many areas, according to the action. It is not known why the fish choose specific spawning sites, the agency said.
     Due to the slow maturation of the fish, the reduced average age of fish being caught is a further concern for the survival of this species. “It is unusual to obtain individuals of more than 12 years of age in exploited fisheries, with more heavily fished areas yielding much younger fish on average,” the agency said.
     The fish spawn during the winter full moons, and the spawning events occur within 20 minutes of sunset. The fish are known to “mill around” the spawning site for several days, according to the action.
     The listing proposal was spurred by a petition from the WildEarth Guardians. “Reining in human exploitation of Nassau grouper spawning aggregations is key to protecting these magnificent fish,” Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians, was quoted as saying in the group’s response to the listing. “The agency should also designate critical habitat in the U.S. portions of the species’ range to protect the coral reefs and spawning sites these fish need to survive.”
     No critical habitat was proposed in the recent action, but the agency requests information and comments that may be relevant in formulating a critical habitat designation and the final listing.
     Comments on the proposed rule are due Dec. 31, 2014.

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