Nassau Grouper

The Downward Spiral of a Precious Commodity.

Norman E. Pelletier January 27, 2012

Let me first start by saying that this is a true story about the exploitation of a precious commodity in the idyllic island chain of The Bahamas. While the names of the individuals involved have been changed to protect their identities, I can assure you that no laws or fishing regulations were violated at the time.

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Photo: Doug Perrine/SeaPics.com

It all started when I purchased an aft-cabin cruiser while living in Portsmouth, NH. My wife and I truly enjoyed the ocean and spent as much time on the water as possible. We became close friends with a couple that moored their refurbished lobster boat a few slips down from us. Every winter Andrew and Judy would load up the lobster boat and steam down to The Bahamas. Andrew always talked about owning a piece of paradise in the islands and he eventually purchased a large plot of land just steps from the water.

Word quickly spread and grouper trapping soon propagated through The Bahamas like wildfire.

Over the years my wife and I made many visits to the island and met many wonderful people. Andrew’s neighbors were local Bahamians and some of the nicest people I’d ever met. We spent many nights enjoying their freshly prepared cuisine with inspiring stories of living the island life. Eddie was an amazing fisherman and his wife Norma was a fabulous cook. In addition to their two kids, Eddie’s brother Justin also lived under the same roof. Despite their minimalistic lifestyle, they truly enjoyed every day to its fullest.

Over the course of our trips to the island they welcomed my wife and I to help with their daily fishing tasks. They lived off the bounty of the sea and their daily adventures consisted of gathering conch and lobster, bait collecting, grouper spearing and reef fishing. Eddie had a large refrigerated containment next to their house and they brought fresh seafood to the market each day.

In recollection of those memorable years, one particular story stands out about the discovery of an incredible grouper fishery. One day while diving the reef, Justin rose from the depths with breathless excitement. Eddie thought for sure he had seen a large shark. When Justin was finally able to catch his breath he blurted out that he saw a migration of Nassau grouper of unprecedented proportions. He claimed the river of fish was no less than several hundred feet wide and went on for as far as he could see. They both dove back into the water and proceeded to spear grouper after grouper, ending a great day on the water with a record catch. After taking the fish to market the following morning they couldn’t wait to tell Andrew about what they found.

It didn’t take long before Andrew and Eddie started discussing a more efficient means of catching these migrating grouper. Spearing bloody fish in shark-infested waters isn’t as fun as it sounds and they needed to find a safer, more efficient approach. With experience lobster fishing in New England, Andrew suggested they create four makeshift wooden fish traps from materials they hand on hand. The original design was similar to a lobster trap, but substantially larger. Coincidentally, my wife and I arrived for another winter vacation during the week the traps were finally complete.

The day came to test the new technique and with anticipation, the guys headed out to the exact spot where the initial discovery was made. I joined them for the inaugural trip and vividly recall how we were all fumbling around with glee while trying to set the first trap. Thanks to Andrew’s experience lobster fishing, he fabricated the appropriate length lines and affixed buoys at the end of each rope. After deploying the four traps we had a quick lunch and discussed what might be waiting for us upon our return.

We anxiously went back to the first pot and started to haul it up by hand. At first we thought it was snagged because one person could not haul the trap alone. With three of us pulling on the rope the trap slowly rose from the depths. The pen was so full of Nassau grouper that we could not lift it out of the water. We had to open the trap door and pull the fish out one at a time! Combined, the four fish traps yielded a boatload of grouper each weighing between 15 and 30 pounds. Heading back to the dock we were all extremely excited with the results but realized there was still a lot of work ahead of us. We now had to fillet the fish before they could be sold at the market.

The next morning our wives delivered the fish and the guys went back out to check the traps that were left to soak overnight. When we arrived at the honey hole we started pulling on the first trap and to our surprise it felt even heavier than the day before. To make a long story short at the end of the exhausting day the deck of the boat was literally overflowing with grouper. We headed back to the dock excited to share stories of our incredible catch. The women were waiting for us at the dock, even more thrilled to tell us that we no longer had to fillet the fish, rather remove the entrails and leave the grouper whole for a dollar less per pound. That was all the encouragement the boys needed to hear.

Word quickly spread and grouper trapping soon propagated through The Bahamas like wildfire. Large commercial fishing operations set hundreds of traps and before long buoys dotted the shores of The Bahamas like that of New England’s lobster fisheries. In only a few short years grouper populations were devestated. Evidently no one along the way, myself included, stopped to think about the irreversible damage of such effective an effective approach. We never realized that individual grouper traveled upwards of a hundred miles to join these spawning aggregations and we in essence, were destroying an entire island fishery.

While Andrew and Eddie are partially to blame, they are certainly not the first anglers to utilize fish traps. It’s now evident that indiscriminate fishing practices like this occurred throughout the entire Caribbean and as a result Nassau grouper are now considered commercially extinct across much of their geographic range. While currently protected in U.S. waters, Nassau grouper are also listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Furthermore, top grouper experts working with The Bahamian Department of Marine Resources believe that Bahamian grouper populations will collapse if steps aren’t taken to protect and properly manage essential spawning sites. It is now a well-known fact that Nassau grouper converge in large groups at spawning sites during full moon periods in January and February.

Since the downfall of Nassau grouper populations throughout the Caribbean, fishery managers have developed closed seasons, created fisheries parks and taken additional steps to protect spawning aggregations, however it has not been enough. Fish trapping is still legal in The Bahamas and common practice with many locals. While laws regulate mesh size and require the implementation of a biodegradable panel so a lost trap doesn’t go on killing forever, this indiscriminate fishing practice may be the proverbial nail in the coffin for already struggling reefs.

It is unfortunate that good men with honest intentions to support their family capitalized on such an effective catching technique that would ultimately lead to the demise of their most cherished fishery. Although The Bahamas and nearby Belize have what are thought to be the last and strongest spawning aggregations, their future hangs in the balance. Nassau grouper are naturally vulnerable to exploitation and one of the many grouper species threatened with complete extinction. As the insatiable demand for fresh grouper fillets continues to rise, it is clear that there needs to be greater enforcement and protection of key spawning sites. While The Bahamas are close to home, worldwide there’s an urgent need to adopt sound conservation measures and protect essential habitats, ecosystems and the countless game fish that coastal communities rely on. Together, we can make a difference.

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