Govt. Ignores Science and Further Imperils Reef FishThe Ocean Conservancy sues to stop irresponsible rollback
The Ocean Conservancy has filed suit in federal court challenging Amendment 21 to the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Resources Fishery Management Plan. Amendment 21 threatens populations of gag grouper and other reef fish by opening the Madison/Swanson and Steamboat Lumps marine reserves in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to surface trolling (a type of fishing practice) for six months of the year. Surface trolling for coastal pelagic species such as wahoo and cobia has been shown to catch vulnerable reef fish like gag grouper, that the reserves were created to protect, and also makes enforcement of the reserves nearly impossible.
These marine reserves, consisting of 219 square nautical miles, were developed in 2000 to rebuild and protect spawning aggregations of reef fish, such as gag grouper, that are depleted and vulnerable to overfishing. The sites were also created to help evaluate the effectiveness of marine reserves as a management tool. Gag grouper, which change from female to male as they grow and mature, are especially vulnerable to fishing pressure; fishermen target the larger fish, which results in their catching a disproportionate number of males and undermining the reproduction and health of the entire population. At least one scientific study has shown that males now make up only one to four percent of the population and that inbreeding threatens the genetic diversity of the species.
Because of the unique characteristics of gag grouper, marine reserves free from fishing pressure are especially effective tools to help rebuild and sustain these fish stocks. While the recreational fishing industry has argued that surface trolling causes no problems for reef fish like gag grouper, scientific studies have shown that even this limited type of fishing poses serious problems for the recovery of the species. Surface trolling still catches gag grouper and other prohibited reef fish, often in high quantities, and makes enforcement of the marine reserves nearly impossible because enforcement officers cannot differentiate between legal and illegal fishing, even with thorough investigations.
“Allowing fishing in these critical spawning areas threatens to wipe out much of the conservation gains made by the creation of these fishery reserves in the first place,” said David White, Director of the Southeastern Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Regional Office with The Ocean Conservancy. “This management decision makes it all but impossible to monitor and enforce the very protections that the reserves were designed to implement. Creating ineffective fishery recovery zones that can’t be monitored and enforced is like taking one step forward, and two steps backward.”
The Gulf Council’s own science and enforcement advisory panels have recommended the protected areas remain completely free from fishing pressure as originally intended to achieve their full ecological benefits.
The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and Pew Oceans Commission reports both detail the tremendous negative impact overfishing can have on habitats and fish populations. And most of this damage can be traced back to poor management decisions that ignore scientific advice.
“Fishery management decisions – especially for species at risk, like gag grouper – must be based on the best scientific evidence available. The science is clear in this case, but like in so many other cases, the managers have decided to ignore it,” said White.
06/4/2004 Ocean Conservancy, ems.org
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