This year, 2013, the critically endangered Goliath grouper is once again under review by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) . On the table, the possibility of lifting the 1990 federal and state moratorium on harvest for this fragile species.

I have provided up-to-date information in my previous posts: Guilt-free Goliath groupers and Goliath groupers under review.  Below are 5 common myths on Goliath grouper used to justify requests for lifting the current moratorium. The myths are contrasted with data obtained from scientific research done my myself and others.

Goliath groupers were fished to near extinction in the United States. Trophy fishing in the 1950s; Key West, Florida. Credit: anonymous

PAST: Goliath groupers were fished to near extinction in the United States. Trophy fishing in the 1950s; Key West, Florida. Credit: anonymous

TODAY: Goliath grouper spawning aggregation re-forming in east Florida after being fished to extinction. Credit: Walt Stearns

TODAY: Goliath grouper spawning aggregation re-forming in east Florida after being fished to extinction. Credit: Walt Stearns

Myth #1

Goliath groupers eat all the groupers, snappers and lobsters on the reef, contributing to fisheries declines.

The Science Answers: False.

In Goliath grouper, poor development of canine teeth reflects a generalized diet [1]. Analysis of stomach contents [2,3,4] reveal that diet is restricted to invertebrates, mostly shrimp and crabs, lobsters, gastropods, and poisonous or venom-spined slow-moving fish ( stingrays – Dasyatidae; cowfish – Ostraciidae; burrfish and pufferfish – Diodontidae; catfish – Ariidae). Food web dynamics based on carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analyses in goliath grouper confirm the diet preferences (invertebrates and poisonous slow moving fish) obtained through previous dentition and stomach content studies. The isotope analyses indicated a broad prey base with a relatively high trophic status [5], but not to the level of a top predatory fish as the myth explains. The most comprehensive study to date [6] demonstrates that: 1) Goliath groupers are not the cause for declining fish and lobster stocks.  Overfishing is the main cause; 2) Goliath groupers function as a top-down control on juvenile lobster predators, ensuring more lobsters reach adult size and become available to the lobster fishery; and 3) goliath groupers could provide additional ecological and socioeconomic benefits:  in ecotourism, and as potential bio-control of the invasive Indo-Pacific red lionfish Pterois volitans on Atlantic reefs.

Myth #2

Goliath grouper grow at a formidable speed to reach such a big size, so they must eat huge amounts of grouper, snappers and lobsters to grow that fast.

The Science Answers: False.

The goliath grouper diet is explained in myth #1. As for a formidable speed of growth, we must focus on the juvenile phase. Fish have indeterminate growth, which means, they keep increasing in length and weight throughout their life, unlike us and other mammals, who reach our maximum length (height in our case) at a determined adult age. During the juvenile phase (from birth until reaching sexual maturity), fish experience their fastest growth rate, which then decreases progressively throughout the rest of their life.

Goliath grouper juveniles migrate from their mangrove juvenile habitat to their adult reef habitat at about 8 years old, measuring 110 cm-120 cm in length [3]. This gives a maximum juvenile growth rate of 15 cm/year or 6 inches/year, as the maximum growth speed during the lifetime of an individual goliath grouper. This is the same speed at which our hair grows (!). Obviously not a mythical speed of growth.

Myth #3

Goliath grouper are a pest. They are everywhere.

The Science Answers: False.

This myth is a common problem of the “shifting baselines syndrome” [7], whereby fishers accept abundance and size information from more and more recent periods as baselines. Once commercial extinction occurred in the late 1980s, goliath grouper were absent in Florida reefs. Such absence became a new baseline, to the new anglers and spearfishers moving to Florida. Since the 1990 fishing moratorium, goliath grouper are in a path of recovery, slowly returning to their original distribution area. Therefore, every new grouper encountered represents a 100 % increase for someone with a zero-grouper baseline.

Site attachment, available habitat and spawning aggregation behavior [3,8, 9] also contribute to perceiving goliath grouper as a pest. Goliaths usually remain in the same site after they recruit to the reef. Hence the abundance of one single goliath grouper is multiplied by as many fishers or divers that have encountered it. Available hard bottom structure, specially in regions which lack natural reef habitat or where this habitat has been degraded, also concentrates goliath groupers, giving an artificial perception of over-abundance to the observer. Finally, spawning aggregations concentrate all the adult goliath grouper throughout the reef in one single location, compounding a false sense of overabundance to the casual observer. Only the few “old-timers” left in Florida, those that were fishing in the 1950s and 1960s, have experienced the extinction and path towards recovery of goliath grouper. Interestingly, these fishers are the most supportive of continued goliath grouper conservation.

Myth #4

Re-opening the fishery will provide a healthy food source for consumers. 

The Science Answers: False.

We must remember that goliath grouper reached commercial extinction in the late 1980s. The species is extremely vulnerable to overfishing due to its slow growth, long life (possibly exceeding four decades), late sexual maturity (up to 8 years), strong site fidelity, the formation of spawning aggregations, and being unafraid of divers (even those with spearguns) [3,8]. Even recreational fishing could be extremely damaging as it has been demonstrated for other fish species: recreational landings in the US seriously impact many of the most-valued overfished species [10].

When the fishery existed, goliath groupers were mostly targeted for trophy fishing, that is, catching the biggest fish for show and tell. When the fish meat was used, 90 % of it was ground for fertilizer use or ended up in canned food for pets (dogs and cats). There were several reports of drugs being smuggled inside the carcasses of dead goliaths, in their way to northern states. The closure of the fishery did not result in direct starvation to any US citizen.

While it is true goliath grouper are the largest grouper fish in the Atlantic ocean, and the second largest grouper fish in the world, just behind the giant grouper of the Indo-Pacific (Epinephelus lanceolatus), big size does not necessarily translate to food source. Here, we must be concerned about health risks. Since goliath grouper are a coastal species, with a prolonged juvenile phase living in mangrove habitats, they accumulate in their tissues the pollution we generate in our modern way of living, by the effect of bioaccumulation (toxins ingested with their prey). Indeed, muscle tissue in goliath grouper commonly contain methyl mercury -a toxic form of mercury which causes dangerous cardiovascular and neurological effects in humans-, often exceeding the United States governmental advisory criteria for human health [5]. Goliath grouper also die when red tides, or Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) from the dinoflagellate algae Karenia brevis, occur. Brevetoxin (a toxin produced by the dinoflagellate) is a potent neurotoxin that causes serious illness in humans who ingest marine life containing the toxin, or if they inhale the toxin aerosols [11]. HAB-originated fish kills in which huge numbers of goliath grouper die occur during multi-species mortality events, when manatees, dolphins and seaturtles also die. It has been demonstrated that the cause of death for the marine mammals is due to the ingestion of prey which contained the brevetoxin, and by the process of bioaccumulation, enough brevetoxin accumulated in the animal’s tissues to become the cause of death [12]. Preliminary data suggest brevetoxin accumulation is also the cause of death in goliath grouper (Frias-Torres, unpublished data). Hence, consumption of goliath grouper fillets could pose an additional brevetoxin health risk for humans. Finally, studies on pesticide levels contained in goliath grouper tissue have not been completed, but it is possible they follow a similar bioaccumulation pattern than that of methylmercury and brevetoxin.

Myth #5

There are too many goliath grouper out there. We must use this resource for the benefit of the fishermen, so we have to do something about this, such as a limited recreational take, with a tag or permit system.

The Science Answers: False.

The perception of goliath grouper invading every crevice of the reef has been discussed in myth #3, and is due to the “shifting baselines syndrome” explained there.

Spearfishers and hook-and-liners wiped out the goliath grouper population in U.S. waters in the late 1980s reaching commercial extinction [3, 13]. Goliath grouper are extremely easy to catch: they are unafraid of divers, they present site attachment (remain in the same site once they recruit to the mangroves as juveniles and to the reef as adults), and all the goliaths of the State congregate once a year at a reduced number of sites to form spawning aggregations, and reproduce. It will be extremely difficult to justify the socioeconomic, management and ethical reasons for opening a limited recreational take, mainly due to the potential health risks for human consumption (explained above), the lack of “sport” in killing such a catchable species, and the potential of localized extinction events when tags or permits were used in a short time window or limited geographic range.

A live goliath grouper is more valuable than a dead one. And here relies the true benefit for fishers and other Florida taxpayers. Tourists come from all over the country, and all over the world just to scuba dive with goliath grouper. This is a tremendous source of tourist dollars for the state of Florida, not only for the diving business – each diver pays $100-$140  for a two-tank dive, depending on gear rented-, but also for the associated businesses, as the tourist-divers need to eat, sleep, and drive. Ironically, the same qualities that make goliath grouper extremely vulnerable to overfishing and extinction, also make them a great ecotourist attraction: they are huge, long-lived, unafraid of divers, remain in the same reef site, and form spawning aggregations.

Direct benefit to fishers and the state of Florida also relies on other potential ecosystem services goliath grouper provide, specially in these times of economic and environmental crisis. The invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish (Pterois volitans) is a voracious predator of juvenile reef fish and it is causing major disruptions in Atlantic reefs, in conjunction with habitat destruction and global climate change [14]. The lack of big predators able to feed and survive the poisonous spines of lionfish favors the expansion of this invader. However, the goliath grouper’s adaptation to feed on slow-moving venom-spined or skin-poisonous fish (catfish, stingrays, cowfish, burrfish, pufferfish), could potentially become our best ally to fight against such destructive invader, and perhaps successfully preserve and rebuild Florida’s reef fish communities.

Literature Cited

[1] Smith CL. 1971. A revision of the American groupers: Epinephelus and allied genera. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 146, 69-241.

[2] Bullock LH, Smith GB. 1991. Seabasses (Pisces: Serranidae). Memoirs of the Hourglass Cruises 8 (2), 1-243.

[3] Sadovy Y, Eklund AM. 1999. Synopsis of biological information on the Nassau Grouper, Epinephelus striatus (Bloch 1792), and the jewfish, E. itajara (Lichtenstein 1822). NOAA Technical Report NMFS 146, Seattle, Washington. 65 pp.

[4] Koenig CC, Coleman FC. 2009. Population density, demographics, and predation effects of adult goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara). Final Report to NOAA MARFIN for Project NA05NMF4540045.

[5] Evers DC, Graham RT, Perkins CP, Michener R. 2009. Mercury concentration in the goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara) of Belize: and anthropological stressor. Endang. Species Res. 7:249-256. Open Access http://www.int-res.com/articles/esr2009/7/n007p249.pdf

[6] Frias Torres, S.  2013.  Should critically endangered goliath groupers, Epinephelus itajara, be culled in Florida?  Oryx 47 (1):  88-95. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8807528

[7] Pauly D. 1995. Anecdotes and the shifting baselines syndrome in fisheries. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10: 430.

[8] Frias-Torres S. 2006. Habitat use by juvenile goliath grouper, Epinephelus itajara, in the Florida Keys, USA. Endangered Species Research 2: 1-6. Open Access http://www.int-res.com/articles/esr2006/2/n002p001.pdf

[9] Frias-Torres S, Barroso P, Eklund A-M, Schull J, Serafy J. 2007. Activity patterns of juvenile goliath grouper, Epinephelus itajara, in a mangrove nursery. Bulletin of Marine Science 80: 587-594.

[10] Coleman FC, Figueira WF, Ueland JS, Crowder LB. 2004. The impact of United States recreational fisheries on marine fish populations. Science 305: 1958 – 1960.

[11] Steidinger KA. 1993. Algal Toxins in Seafood and Drinking Water (ed. Falconer, I.) 1-28 , Academic Press, London.

[12] Flewelling LJ and 20 authors. 2005. Red tides and marine mammal mortalities. Nature. Vol 435: 755-756

[13] McClenachan L. 2009. Historical declines of goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara) populations of South Florida, USA. Endang. Species Res. 7:175-181. Open Access http://www.int-res.com/articles/esr2009/7/n007p175.pdf

[14] Albins MA, Hixon MA. 2008. Invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish (Pterois volitans) reduce recruitment of Atlantic coral-reef fishes. Mar Ecol. Prog. Ser., 367:233-238.

Related articles

This year, the critically endangered Goliath grouper is once again under review by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). On the table, the possibility of opening killing season for this fragile species.

Learn the facts from my recent peer reviewed scientific manuscript published in Oryx, the International Journal of Conservation.

Click here for a FREE pdf download

Goliath Grouper meets Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres. Photo Credit: Steve Karm

Goliath Grouper meets Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres. Photo Credit: Steve Karm

Briefly, Goliath groupers are not to blame for declining lobster and snapper stocks in Florida, one of the main reasons behind requests to reopen the fishery.

In my paper titled “Should the Critically Endangered Goliath grouper Epinephelus itajara be culled in Florida”, I analyzed fisheries landing data since the 1950s, diver based surveys and published dietary studies. I concluded that :

1) Goliath groupers eat invertebrates (worms, molluscs and crustaceans) and poisonous fish, not snappers and other groupers. Surprisingly, many of the prey consumed by goliath groupers are in turn predators of juvenile spiny lobster. Hence, goliath groupers are a fishers’ best friend, because through top-down predator control, goliaths could allow more juvenile lobsters to grow and become available to fishers.

2) The slow recovery of the Goliath grouper population in Florida is not the cause for declining lobster and snapper stocks in Florida. Instead, overfishing is the main cause.

3) A thriving Goliath grouper population could provide additional socio-economic benefits in ecotourism, and as a potential biocontrol agent for the invasive lionfish.

Goliath groupers are a national treasure. Florida is the only place in the world where we can encounter these gentle giants, from juveniles to adults. Florida also contains 99 % of the spawning aggregation sites known worldwide. With this study in hand, we now have a strong argument to continue protection of the Goliath grouper and dismiss any claims that the Goliaths are destroying valuable stocks of lobster, snapper and other groupers.

Related articles:

One-quarter of Grouper species are being fished to extinction

Five common myths about Goliath grouper (An outreach guide prepared by Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres)

PRESS RELEASE

Overfishing, not goliath groupers, causes declines in Florida lobster and snapper stocks.

Study finds critically endangered goliath groupers are not to blame for declining lobster and snapper stocks in Florida.

Fort Pierce, Florida, October 12, 2012

Media Contact: Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres

E-mail: sfriastorres@gmail.com

Independent scientist, Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres announced today the first comprehensive study on whether culling the protected goliath grouper population in Florida to increase lobster and fish stocks is supported by scientific evidence.

Goliath Grouper meets Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres. Photo Credit: Dr. Mark Eakin

Goliath grouper, Epinephelus itajara, is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). The largest grouper fish in the Atlantic ocean, goliaths can reach 8 feet (2.5 meters) in length, weigh 1,000 pounds and live more than 40 years. After being fished to near extinction, goliaths have been protected by a moratorium on harvest in U.S. federal and state waters since 1990 and in the U.S. Caribbean since 1993. Elsewhere in the Atlantic ocean, the species is either extinct, or critically endangered.

Over the last decade, Florida recreational and commercial fishermen have demanded a “thinning out” of the population, as fishers consider goliath groupers a major predator of spiny lobster, snapper and other grouper species, and the main reason for declines in such target species.

The study titled “Should the Critically Endangered Goliath grouper Epinephelus itajara be culled in Florida”, analyzed fisheries landing data since the 1950s, diver based surveys and published dietary studies. It concludes that :

1) Goliath groupers eat invertebrates (worms, molluscs and crustaceans) and poisonous fish, not snappers and other groupers. Surprisingly, many of the prey consumed by goliath groupers are in turn predators of juvenile spiny lobster. Hence, goliath groupers are a fishers’ best friend, because through top-down predator control, goliaths could allow more juvenile lobsters to grow and become available to fishers.

2) The slow recovery of the goliath grouper population in Florida is not the cause for declining lobster and snapper stocks in Florida. Instead, overfishing is the main cause.

3) A thriving goliath grouper population could provide additional socio-economic benefits in ecotourism, and as a potential biocontrol agent for the invasive lionfish.

“Goliath groupers are a national treasure. Florida is the only place in the world where we can encounter these gentle giants, from juveniles to adults. Florida also contains 99 % of the spawning aggregation sites known worldwide. With this study in hand, we now have a strong argument to continue protection of the goliath grouper and dismiss any claims that the goliaths are destroying valuable stocks of lobster, snapper and other groupers.” Said Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres, the author of this study.

The research, published today at the journal Oryx, was funded by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, and conducted when the author was a postdoctoral fellow at the Fort Pierce-based Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA). Currently Dr. Frias-Torres is a research collaborator with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC and the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Oryx, the International Journal of Conservation, publishes research on biodiversity conservation, conservation policy and sustainable use, and the interactions of these matters with social, economic and political issues.

The full scientific article can be downloaded for free at the Oryx journal web site

Frias-Torres, S. (2013). Should the critically endangered Goliath grouper, Epinephelus itajara, be culled in Florida? Oryx Volume 47, Issue 1, pp 88-95.

If you walk on a Florida beach or go boating near a mangrove shoreline  keep an eye for one of these:

As part of an independent oceanographic experiment (not affiliated with any institution), I released 500 thumb-sized vials from an undisclosed Florida location. Each of them carries a message: call home.

If you find them, call the phone number or email on the label. You will be asked where, when and in what condition you found the tiny messenger. Also, you will be asked to provide the code. Each one of them carries a unique code.

On December 15, 2012 all recovered codes will be entered in a raffle, for a chance to win a small reward.

Your participation will allow scientists like me to better understand oceanographic patterns in Florida’s coastal ecosystems.

Environmental impact

The vials are recycled plastic. Inside there’s a clear liquid which is double filtered freshwater, completely harmless.

Before conducting the oceanographic experiment, I made sure I minimized the environmental footprint of the experiment. Other oceanographers in the past have used glass in similar experiments. I decided glass will be too much of a hazard because it might break, and for that reason I chose plastic.

The plastic is clinical grade and recycled, so it does not release any chemicals and it’s inert (the kind of plastic used in high-precision medical tests). To account for plastic vials that won’t be recovered, I have already committed to additional coastal cleaning activities, on top of my regular beach cleaning I do on my weekends. I regularly collect plastic and other trash as I walk on the beach. I also collect trash when I go SCUBA diving: plastic, cans, fishing line, hooks, etc.

As a rule, I modify oceanographic experiments so they are either pollution-free or I can remediate whatever minimal environmental footprint they might generate.

When I was a baby, I was kidnapped.

They arrived to our home unannounced. Mom stayed very close to me, positioning herself between the attackers and myself. She called on my sisters and brothers, all trying to defend me because I was the baby. One by one they pulled them away from the protective circle, hitting them with violence. Then, they reached mom. I was pressing my whole body to hers for safety, crying in terror, when a knife went through her heart. Her blood covered my face, and she was still calling me “be strong baby, be strong”. Even when the strangers grabbed me and I could not move, mom was fighting to protect me. I could hear her screaming in pain and fear, I could feel her blood dripping though my body. Then I heard mom gasping for breath when she said her last words “be strong”.

That was many years ago, but I still remember it as if it was yesterday. The horror of that day still plays in my head over and over. My kidnappers forced me to live in solitary confinement at first. Then, they took me to a different jail, and I’ve been forced to live with other prisoners, who like me, were kidnapped when young. Every day, we have to do circus tricks so the kidnappers will give us food.

If you see me smile, it’s not because I’m happy to see you. It’s because my face just looks this way. I’m a slave. You pay my kidnappers so you can enjoy seeing my tricks.

Neither you nor your children will learn anything noble from the suffering of a slave. Inside, my heart cries with the desperation of the captive. I cry for the freedom I lost, for my family, slaughtered. I would have invited you to my ocean home, and you would have met my family and learn from that experience. But to you, I’m just one more dolphin in a round swimming pool.

“The dolphin smile is nature’s greatest deception” Ric O’Barry. Photo credit: David B. Fleetham at Allposters.com

Type C killer whales in the Ross Sea. The eye ...

Type C killer whales in the Ross Sea. The eye patch slants forward. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If captive dolphins and killer whales (orcas) could talk to you, this is what they will tell you. Dolphins and orcas are highly intelligent and social beings. They live in their ocean home in family groups, they call each other by their own names, they have their own language, their own culture and society. We know this is true through numerous scientific studies.

Every time you go to a dolphin or orca show, you are validating the cruelty and slaughter of their capture. This is a crime against nature and against humanity itself.

The award winning film The Cove, demonstrated how the capture of wild dolphins for aquarium and swim with dolphin shows is linked to dolphin slaughter.

Even if the dolphin has been living in captivity for many years, time does not erase the horror of the crime . A mother dolphin will not give away her baby. She will fight to the death defending her baby. What will you do if a stranger tried to take away your child? you will give your life defending your baby. It’s the same for mother dolphins and orcas and their family group.

As a consumer, you can make a difference. Learn about wild dolphins, and don’t pay to see captive dolphins. Understand that captive dolphins are not just one more attraction, they are slaves kept in captivity against their will. Instead, join a whale-watching or a wild dolphin boat tour. Support the Clean Water Act, and initiatives to ensure our rivers and oceans have clean water, so the wild dolphins and whales will have a clean ocean to live on. Support marine conservation initiatives that promote sustainable fishing practices, so wild dolphins and whales will have food to eat.

Above all, be human.

About a year ago, I presented my research at the International Marine Conservation Congress in Victoria, Canada. This was only the second time the  international marine conservation community met to develop new strategies for marine conservation science and policy.

At the Congress, I was interviewed by the team from Mission Blue, founded by world renowned deep sea explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle. I shared my views about the importance of marine conservation and where we are in terms of marine protected areas. The entire interview and an illustration are posted at the Mission Blue Blog.

It took the talent and creativity of artist Asher Jay to find a visual home for one of my quotes from the Mission Blue interview. A few days ago, Asher Jay opened her new art exhibit in New York: Message in a Bottle. Asher hand-painted  plastic PET bottles (post-consumer waste) using them as vessels to share the voices of individuals leading scientific research, conservation and policy change to ensure ocean life continues to flourish.

My message…

“We are part of the ocean.  If the oceans die, we die with them, so marine conservation is essential for our own survival. Every second breath you take comes from the ocean, so if you are against marine conservation you are only allowed to breathe from 9 am to 9 pm and the rest of the 12 hours you have you cannot breathe at all.”

… was paired with this bottle

Message in a Bottle by Asher Jay

There are 100 Ocean Voices in the exhibit, each one with a unique message and image. Both the images and the messages are a great source of inspiration.

There’s also a dedicated image gallery, for the entire exhibit.

If you are reading this blog, it means you are breathing. Half of the oxygen you are using comes from the ocean, produced by microscopic algae in the plankton. Tiny oxygen-producing natural factories. If you plan on continuing breathing for a while, I hope you find inspiration on how to do so in Message in a Bottle.

Dissertation Notebook: Day 23

When I told my doctoral adviser, Professor Boomer, that I wanted to focus my dissertation on human behavior, he used the words “you’re crazy” and “good luck” on the same sentence. Professor Boomer is one of the few Elders who survived the Great Massacre. For that reason, he rates humans way below the lowly sea cucumbers. But even Professor Boomer, with his loud voice (he’s the loudest bicolor male I’ve ever heard in a spawning aggregation) could not argue with me that humans are a poorly studied zoological group and deserve the same scientific scrutiny we relish on other species.

Before I could begin with my behavioral observations, I gathered some basic background on humans. As usual, dolphins are a good source of information, but you have to be a bit careful with them. Dolphins, with their know-it-all attitude, will talk to you while at the same time keep playing with a seaweed, or copulating in front of you. There’s no serious academic decorum when it comes to dolphins.

Anyhow, dolphins said humans live on land and breathe air. Those who come into the ocean either stay at the surface, or go down with a big air bubble on their backs. What a weird species, an alien of a different world!.  Of course, dolphins also breathe air, but at least they live in my ocean world, and I can talk to them (if you can bypass the annoying high pitch whistles they use to tell jokes behind my back when they think I can’t hear them). The issue of communicating with humans might be a bit complicated. Dolphins claim they’ve tried to do so for centuries and it seems humans are idiots. I’m not sure if that’s a dolphin euphemism, (dolphins view any non-dolphin species as slightly idiotic ), but I must consider the possibility of conducting a full behavioral study on a species that is, at the very least, mentally impaired. A final limitation is the inability to sex humans in the field. Dolphins claim that, using their sound-based vision, they can tell apart male humans from female humans. But I don’t have such powers, so I’ll have to modify my experimental design accordingly.

Almost a month into my quest for knowledge, I discovered some basic facts about human behavior. Humans are very noisy. I can hear them coming to my reef way before I see them. Some of my colleagues go on hiding right away. As a behavioral scientist, I must remain inconspicuous to avoid disturbing the natural behavior of human visitors, but I don’t have the luxury to flee the site, otherwise, I’ll never get any science done!.

Humans are rude. They don’t follow grouper etiquette, and get right on your face. This is a typical image I see in my daily behavioral expeditions.

To add insult to injury, humans fart constantly. At least, that was my initial impression. I asked the dolphins about that, and after laughing to tears, they explained humans make small bubbles after they breath from the big air bubble on their backs. So what to me sounds like many farts, is actually part of the human breathing process. Humans are indeed weird!. Then the dolphins proceeded to demonstrate the difference between making bubbles, and letting a fart go. And in typical dolphin humor, swam around my reef cave farting all along. Show offs.

Yesterday, I met an interesting human. It was a bit less noisy than the others and it had a gentle disposition. I managed to get close enough for a good photograph. I think this could be Figure 1 for my dissertation.

The quest continues…

Grouper Goodall is a goliath grouper investigating human behavior as the main topic in her doctoral dissertation. Her doctoral adviser is world renowned ocean explorer Professor Boomer, Director of the Elder Council and survivor of the Great Massacre.

…From the Grouper Chronicles…

“Last summer I almost died in my quest for love. I wanted to visit my usual singles bar. Two summers ago, I saw a pretty girl there but she gave me the cold fin. So I was going along with my buddies, following the reef, when we stopped in a cave to rest for a while. There was a powerful current taking us deeper into the cave. We couldn’t fight it. After smashing our bodies along the strange cave, we ended up in a canal. We tried really hard to get back to the ocean but we were trapped. Many jellyfish came along the same cave and ended up in the canal. A few days later, the water started to smell bad, it was impossible to breath, and the jellyfish stung our eyes, and scarred our faces There were so many of us tapped in that hell.

Death came slowly and painfully. Those around me were booming their last goodbyes. Strange human creatures took me out of there. At first, I thought they wanted to kill me but, to my surprise, I was set free into the reef I came from. I kept swimming as fast as I could, all alone, trying to forget the friends that didn’t make it. When I arrived to the singles bar, my body full of cuts and scars  was quite a magnet for the ladies. My near death adventure was the talk of the town. On a moonlit night, I joined the love dance. Something my trapped and dead buddies will never do. Next year, I won’t go near that reef from hell. It’s too much danger for a lifetime”

“This is the singles bar I wanted to visit. I’m the gorgeous male on the foreground”

“These are my buddies who suffered a slow and painful death”

The events explained here are based on a true story. On August 22-25, 2011, a massive influx of jellyfish shut down the St. Lucie nuclear power plant in Fort Pierce, Florida. As a collateral damage, the event resulted in a massive kill of protected goliath groupers already trapped in the plant’s water intake canal.

Early estimates are around 50-75 adult goliath groupers but they could be higher. Considering the species is critically endangered throughout the Atlantic ocean, and in the United States it’s in a slow path towards recovery from near extinction, losing such a significant number of the breeding population is a major setback towards recovery. An article at the Palm Beach Post reported the entire incident.

The nuclear power plant intake pipes, located 21 feet deep, 1,200 feet offshore Fort Pierce (two pipes 12 feet in diameter each, 1 pipe 16 feet in diameter) are in line with a series of worm reefs heavily used by marine wildlife from seaturtles to manatees, reef fishes and goliath groupers. Lacking proper screens, the pipes regularly suction passing marine wildlife. Once trapped, they cannot escape and return to the ocean. Seaturtles are periodically collected and released free. But the same is not always done with the trapped goliath groupers. All seaturtle species and goliath groupers are protected under federal and state regulations. Why release one group and not the other? Once the groupers are trapped in the canals, they are lost to the population, because they’ll never be able to reach a spawning aggregation and reproduce.

Scientists (including myself) were outraged at the massive fish kill because it could have been prevented, and we contacted the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposing an improved contingency plan to avoid further fish mortalities. This action resulted in a new FWC protocol during fish kills.

But as we approach the 1 year anniversary of the nuclear fish kill, I don’t see the changes I expected.

Without any major changes in the intake pipes, seasonal swarms of jellyfish might force again to shut down the nuclear reactor. And without periodic releases of trapped marine wildlife back into the ocean, death by nuclear reactor is still a reality for the protected goliath groupers of Florida.

Every time I participate in a fisheries meeting in Florida, fishers agree on the need of using “good science” to drive fisheries regulations. As a scientist, I should be thrilled of such comments. However, with a few notable exceptions, it seems to me fishers identify “good science” as the one that supports what they want to do: catching fish. Any science that calls for reduced catch limits and fishing closures is, according to them, “bad science”.

The conflict was painfully illustrated once again at a recent meeting of the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) in Cocoa Beach, Florida. As we worked through the meeting agenda, which included impending closures to fishing in deep water reefs to protect deep water corals as essential fish habitat, an impromptu forum opened up, where commercial and recreational fishers voiced their concerns.

In a textbook example of fishing down the food web, a veteran commercial fisherman complained of regulations set during the last decade, as the populations of the most valued fish species have been going downhill, he had less and less fish to catch, ever switching to smaller species. “ I’ll end up fishing for pinfish !!!” he said.

New fishers who have moved into the business during the last decade, including younger generations texting on their iPhones during the meeting, complained that there’s plenty of grouper and snapper in Florida and regulations should be eased on to allow for more fishing. Such shifting baselines syndrome was not lost in one of the old timers, who shared his memories when he began fishing in Florida, 40 years ago: “Many times mine was the only fishing boat around, and I didn’t have much trouble to find fish” he said.

The combination of fishing down the food web, and the shifting baselines syndrome reminded me of tragic and hilarious PSA from Shifting Baselines.org.

Fisherfolk rarely recognize their own impact on the species they exploit. There are mortgages and expensive boats to pay. In many cases, they view cutting back on fishing effort as a luxury they cannot afford.

Ultimately, in a consumer-driven economy, we are all consumers of the products fishermen provide to us. We must educate ourselves on making sustainable seafood choices, such as those provided in Seafood Watch. Our choices will eventually drive sustainable fisheries.

Otherwise, we’ll end up fishing for minnows.

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This is a blog about sexy groupers going on a honeymoon.

The honeymoon is what scientists call a reef fish spawning aggregation, one of the most breathtaking shows in nature.

Most reef fish species aggregate at only a few sites of the reef during one or two months of the year to spawn. The spawning event is always linked to the moon cycle.

Hundreds, sometimes thousands of fish (depending on the species) swim in a synchronized ballet  under a moonlit ocean.

When the moment of spawning arrives, they release the next generation of baby fish into the ocean currents.

Worldwide, 80 % of known reef fish spawning aggregations are overfished, and 20 % of them have been fished to extinction.

This blog will focus on research and conservation of reef fish spawning aggregations, specially those of large-bodied grouper fish.

Other topics on marine conservation will also be explained.

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