US Said to Have Dropped the Ball on Protecting Threatened Grouper

This photo of a Nassau grouper appears in a complaint filed Tuesday against federal agencies that have missed the deadline to establish a critical habitat for the endangered predator fish. “A friendly fish with a playful personality,“ the species is in rapid decline due to habitat loss and overfishing. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Conservationists sued the Trump administration on Tuesday for failing to protect the Nassau grouper, one of the largest coral reef fish, four years after it was designated a threatened species. 

Growing up to 4 feet long and with zebra-like stripes, the large predator fish is found in the warm waters off the southern coast of Florida, in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico where it has become a favorite of underwater photographers.

The Center for Biological Diversity and two other conservation groups that sued Tuesday in Washington Federal Court note that the species is “a friendly fish with a playful personality, and is known to interact with scuba divers.”

Four years ago, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration listed the Nassau grouper as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but the government has since failed to follow through with the safeguards that come with such status, including the designation of a critical habitat.

“There’s an ongoing pattern of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service to a certain extent, blowing deadlines and not following the statutory requirements of the Endangered Species Act,” Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians, said in an interview Tuesday. 

Jones noted that the lack of funding for conservation work predates the current administration, which has otherwise been marked by its slow rolling of environmental-protection actions.

With a lifespan of up to 29 years, the Nassau grouper was once one of the most common groupers in the United States. But scientists warn overfishing has triggered a 60% decline in the species in recent years, making the need for action from the government urgent. 

“Species with critical habitat designations are twice as likely to recover as species without designated critical habitat,” Tuesday’s complaint states. 

Even as the species is fighting for survival, the complaint notes that human activities — coupled with sea-level rise and ocean acidification — are destroying the coastal reefs, estuaries and seagrass beds where it dwells. 

“Designated habitat would identify the most important areas for Nassau grouper and prevent federal activities that would destroy them,” the complaint states. “The Nassau grouper remains at risk until the Service fulfills its statutory duties to designate the critical habitat necessary to support the grouper’s survival and recovery.” 

This map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the approximate range of the Nassau grouper. The agency lists the fish species as threatened. (Source: fisheries.noaa.gov via Courthouse News)

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, with NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service, are listed as defendants in the lawsuit. A NOAA spokesperson said the agency could not comment on the complaint filed Monday, citing a policy that precludes speaking on pending litigation. 

The Nassau grouper profile on the NOAA Fisheries website states the species’ population is currently at “just a fraction of its historical size.”

“Loss of these top predators can have cascading effects that totally change the ecosystem,” Taylor told Courthouse News.

Her organization, WildEarth Guardians, and its co-plaintiffs argue that a designation under the Endangered Species Act is futile if the government fails to follow through on its end.

“Protected habitat will help set these fish on the path to recovery, but the federal government has stalled this designation for years,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement Tuesday. “We need the courts to intervene.”

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