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Protections Removed for Imperiled Deepwater Fish Species

David Newman

Posted May 10, 2012

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Speckled hind (courtesy of Duane Raver from the book Fishes of the Southeastern United States)    Warsaw grouper (courtesy of Duane Raver from the book Fishes of the Southeastern United States)

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) rescinded vital protections today for two severely depleted deepwater fish species in the South Atlantic, speckled hind and warsaw grouper.  These fish are “extremely vulnerable to overfishing,” according to NMFS, as they grow slowly, can live up to 40 years, and tend to spawn in groups.  They’re also impressive animals – speckled hind can grow to three and a half feet and weigh up to 66 pounds, while warsaw grouper can reach seven feet and 450 pounds.  Adding to their curiosity factor – and one of the main reasons they’ve become so scarce – is that they’re all born as females and only transform into males upon maturity, at about six to seven years.  This means when most of the larger, older males have been removed by fishing, the species simply can’t reproduce to healthy numbers.

Taken together, this is why speckled hind and warsaw grouper are in serious trouble.  A recent comparison of catch found no speckled hind older than 10 years by the mid-2000’s, whereas fish as old as 35 years were detected in the late 1970’s, indicating that the older, larger individuals had been removed by fishing.  Both species have been designated as “Species of Concern” by NMFS (one step short of listing under the Endangered Species Act), “Critically Endangered” by International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and “Endangered” by the American Fisheries Society.

Today’s decision reverses NMFS’s earlier determination at the end of 2010 that such measures were required to stop overfishing of these species.  Failure to prevent overfishing is not only illegal under federal fisheries law, but threatens the species’ very long-term survival.  Overfishing has been an especially persistent problem in the South Atlantic where eight species (and probably many more), including speckled hind and warsaw grouper, have been fished above a sustainable level for over two decades (see my earlier blog for more on this).  Without strong protections these creatures will continue to decline to even more depleted levels. 

In 2006, Congress strengthened the federal fisheries law to finally put an end to chronic overfishing.  NMFS responded at the end of 2010 by prohibiting anglers from keeping any speckled hind or warsaw grouper, but also determined that a mere ban on landings “would not be sufficient to end overfishing of speckled hind and warsaw grouper” because of the amount that are still unintentionally caught and thrown back dead.  This collateral damage, called bycatch, leaves deepwater species with eyes bulged and swim bladders burst from being hauled up too quickly.  For such depleted and slow growing species, even a small amount of fishing mortality can prevent recovery and risk continued decline.

NMFS decided that the only way to prevent continued overfishing for speckled hind and warsaw grouper and to ensure fishing mortality from non-targeted incidental catch was accounted for was to close fishing for deepwater species in waters deeper than 240 feet.  Speckled hind and warsaw grouper inhabit reefs and hard bottom habitats on the continental shelf break and deeper.  The oldest and most fecund individuals spawn in the deeper parts of their range, so the deepwater closure provides immediate relief for the most reproductive fish – the ones capable of rebuilding the population.  Experience shows that protections like this work – they keep species from heading toward extinction and help them rebuild so fisherman can resume more sustainable fishing once they’ve regained safe numbers.

NMFS now claims that its previous statement regarding the necessity of the deepwater closure to end overfishing “appears to have been made in error.”  The only thing that appears to be in error is the Agency’s newfound rationale for its removal.  Soon after it went into effect, fisheries managers began looking for way to minimize its economic impacts, such as by changing the boundaries to permit limited fishing for species that do not occupy the same habitat as speckled and warsaw, like blueline tilefish.  Despite broad support from stakeholders and scientists for some of these reasonable changes, NMFS instead succumbed to pressure from certain fishing groups and simply removed the entire closure, knowingly leaving vulnerable fish populations to continued depletion.

Attempting to rationalize their decision to remove the deepwater closure, the Council misconstrued the scientific analysis presented to them, ignored the very peer-reviewed scientific research relied on to implement the closure, and circumvented the scientific advisory committee specifically empowered to provide guidance in such circumstances.  Despite previously acknowledging what the scientific research shows – that these species inhabit waters deeper than 240 feet, especially the oldest, most fecund individuals – NMFS now mistakenly claims that speckled hind and warsaw grouper are “rarely encountered” in the deepwater closed area and are “more likely to be encountered at shallower depths.”  The problem is their own analysis came to the exact opposite conclusion, finding “the odds of encountering speckled hind and warsaw grouper are higher outside of 240ft.”

Independent analysis by two expert fisheries biologists found that “there is absolutely no defensible evidence that ending the closure will have no impact on these two species.”

Even fisheries managers and officials who supported removing the deepwater closure also acknowledged the danger of doing so without first identifying alternative protective measures for the species. 

The Chairman of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, David Cupka, explained, “obviously, we are well aware of the fact that if we repeal [the deepwater closure] we still are going to have problems with warsaw and speckled hind, and I think it’s everyone’s intention that we try and move ahead to come up with some management alternatives that will further protect those two species from bycatch…”

Council member Ben Hartig also implored the Council that “the species need to be protected” and “it’s just that kind of a fish that can only be protected by closed areas.”  Mr. Hartig warned, “I don’t want to be coming down here in another five years with somebody with an [Endangered Species Act] petition that comes in and then we’re going to have shut down the whole South Atlantic because speckled hind is in such bad shape.” 

NMFS Regional Administrator Roy Crabtree commented that being forced to list the species under the ESA “would certainly be a failure on our part if we ever let it come to that.”

The Fisheries Service should take immediate action to reinstate the deepwater closure while it evaluates potential alternatives for protecting these species.  The Council is now embarking on an effort to establish spawning and habitat protections for speckled hind and warsaw grouper that, if implemented correctly, would have multiple benefits of protecting these depleted species and enabling other snapper and grouper populations to recover from overexploitation.  These efforts must be comprehensive and put in place before it’s too late for the fish.

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