Archives for posts with tag: Environment

Many SCUBA divers support continued protection of Goliath Groupers in Florida. As an example, I share a letter from Carlos & Allison Estape, avid SCUBA divers from Islamorada, Florida Keys. They are my guest bloggers today. Carlos & Allison wrote to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and attended one of the Goliath Grouper workshops currently underway to gather public opinion on the proposal that, if approved, would allow killing this critically endangered species.

You can attend the workshops, write emails to the FWC Commissioners (commissioners@MyFWC.com), call (850-487-0554) or post your comments here 

Letter to FWC from Carlos & Allison Estape :

Commissioners, our names are Carlos & Allison Estape, we live in Islamorada, Florida and we have personally logged several thousand dives each throughout the Florida Keys since 1978.

First-hand experience

It is a rare sight indeed to nowadays come across a Goliath while SCUBA diving on our reefs. Data from the Reef Environmental & Educational Foundation  data that has been presented to the Commission in the past, show that Goliaths are reported on less than 6% of the nearly 26,000 diver surveys in the Florida Keys since 1993. Many of those reports are of the same fish or fishes found repeatedly on the same sites, Goliaths show great site fidelity as is well known.

Unsupported charges

In the minutes of previous Commission meetings, it has been suggested by anglers that the Goliath grouper is responsible for reduced human take of other game species and lobsters.

My first question to all for consideration is:

If Goliath groupers are to blame for great reductions in other species such as other groupers or lobster then why is it that within the Florida Keys Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs) large numbers of Black grouper and plentiful lobsters can be found? Which of the following two reasons is more plausible:

  • Is it because Goliaths haven’t figured out the Black grouper and lobsters are hiding in the SPAs or
  • Is it because people aren’t allowed to fish or harvest there?

It is my observation that the reason for reduced catches of some game fish and lobsters isn’t that there are too many Goliath groupers.

Human population considerations

Consider this, registered vessels in Monroe County in 1991, the year after the Goliath grouper moratorium on harvest started, totaled about 16,000. In 2016 there were more than 29,000. That’s just Monroe County. In Miami-Dade County there were more than 66,000 registered vessels.

These numbers don’t take into consideration all the vessels brought to Monroe from other parts of the State or outside the State. Between recreational and commercial harvesting we have depleted our game fish stocks so that studies (James A. Bohnsack et al) now show that all but the Yellowtail snapper are below sustainable reproductive rates.

Since 1990 the population of Monroe County has held steady at just under 80,000 people, meanwhile the population of Miami-Dade has increased from 2 million to 2.7 million. The combined population of Monroe/Dade/Broward/Palm Beach has gone from less than 4.1 million to 6.1 million, a 50% growth. The State of Florida has gone from 13.0 to 20.2 million over the same time span, a 55% increase.

Total grouper commercial catch has dropped from 800,000 pounds in 1985 to 200,000 pounds in 2016

What is more probable;

  • Goliaths have been eating more than half a million pounds of other groupers per year, or
  • people have been eating more than half a million more pounds of grouper per year?

Tourism dollars

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary published a socioeconomic factsheet showing that during the 2007-8 tourist season there were 739,000 visitors and residents that participated in diving and snorkeling operations, 85% MORE than the 400,000 that participated in fishing activities. The kicker is that divers spent $470 million in Monroe County that year versus the $274 million spent by fishermen. Divers and snorkelers spent 72% MORE than anglers!

Monroe County Tourist Development Council has spent millions of dollars promoting SCUBA diving along the entire Florida Keys chain including creating the Wreck Trek. These artificial reefs have been shown to have large economic benefits to the local economy, no doubt in large part because on them you can regularly see resident Goliath groupers.

If you allow harvesting of these fish the first to go will likely be those resident Goliaths even though they are in Federal and not State waters, the ones everyone knows are there, the ones people like me and the more than 700,000 other divers that visit the Keys every year hope to see.

While Goliaths show great site fidelity they also come inshore to aggregate. Just off of our island in fifteen feet of water there exists such an aggregation site. The site has 2 or 3 permanent resident Goliaths but that number grows to a dozen or more during August and September. It is highly likely that some of these individuals are the same ones we see offshore on the wrecks. Harvesting them here will deprive the diving community of seeing them elsewhere when they would have moved back to deeper water.

Goliath WStearns Rebreather Edited

Recreational and professional SCUBA divers are strong supporters of Goliath Grouper conservation, and they also support local Florida businesses when visiting to dive with the gentle giants. Photo Credit: Walt Stearns

Enforcement

FWC personnel are understaffed and overworked, I know several of them personally and have the utmost respect for what they do. In my opinion there simply isn’t enough of them to enforce fishing regulations throughout the hundreds of square miles of State waters. How effective will enforcement of the Goliath grouper harvesting be with such limited manpower? I don’t trust the honor system and once the animal has been killed a fine won’t bring it back.

After attending the Key Largo Workshop I’m left with the strong impression that the driving force for opening harvest has nothing to do with science and everything to do with pacifying a loud and vocal group of anglers that won’t be satisfied until all limits and restrictions are removed. This 100-fish per year limit is just throwing them a bone. Without robust science that concludes that a healthy and sustainable breeding stock exists, fishing for this species should remain closed.

If nothing else the harvesting needs to take into account different regions with different Goliath grouper populations, something I still think will be problematic to enforce. The Florida Keys is a very different animal than the Florida West coast and should be treated differently.

In summary:

WE NEED TO LEAVE AS–IS THE STAUS QUO MORATORIUM OF HARVESTING GOLIATH GROUPER TO PREVENT A FURTHER DEGRADATION AND IMBALANCE OF THE FLORIDA KEYS REEF COMMUNITIES until hard scientific evidence tells us otherwise.

OR, IF YOU PREFER, FOR NO OTHER REASON THAN A SOCIO-ECONOMIC ONE FOR THE STATE. GOLIATHS, IT SEEMS, ARE WORTH MORE ALIVE THAN DEAD.

Thank you for your consideration,

Carlos & Allison Estape

Islamorada, Florida

 

Open Letter to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)

July 3, 2017

FWC Commissioners and staff,

I urge FWC to continue the protection of Goliath Grouper and reject the limited take proposal.

Recently, an email from FWC staff on the potential killing of the critically endangered Goliath Grouper confirmed that FWC’s decisions to kill endangered species are not based on science. E-mails to and from FWC and NOAA are public record, so the message and email addresses are shown below accordingly.

FL unscientific letter
There are three key problems with this email.

First, the science denial is stated by the Director of FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI). The FWRI mission statement is “Through effective research and technical knowledge, we provide timely information and guidance to protect, conserve, and manage Florida’s fish and wildlife resources.” The FWRI Director is a scientist who denies science.

Second, the decision to kill or not to kill (harvest) a critically endangered species currently protected (Goliath Grouper) IS a scientific question. Only scientific research can determine whether a species that previously reached commercial extinction has recovered to the point that it can be killed again without bringing the species back into the danger zone. Therefore, prior to even proposing the harvest, a solid scientific argument must be made based on evidence. If the science does not support the harvest, then the proposal to kill should not even exist.

Third, it seems FWC staff has a short memory span, or perhaps information gets lost in an alternate universe. For years, scientists doing research on Goliath Grouper have shared the information with FWC staff (FWC scientists and commissioners), attended workshops, meetings and been available for discussions. All this research shows Goliath Groupers are highly conservation dependent, and cannot withstand exploitation.

On a positive note, FWC disregard for scientific research is finally out in the open. This is not an isolated action. FWC lost all credibility when the Florida black bear hunt was approved in 2015, resulting in the killing of 298 bears in just two days of hunting. The bear hunt was not supported by scientific evidence  and included the killing of bear cubs and mother bears still nursing cubs

It is clear that FWC folded to the pressure of trophy hunting groups, ignoring the best available science. In order to please a handful of people, you cheated all Floridians because wildlife is part of our country’s heritage and ill-planned and unjustified hunts risk the loss of such heritage. The bear hunters must be so proud of killing bear cubs and nursing mothers and FWC was the enabler of such wildlife crime.

Now, you have the critically endangered Goliath Groupers in your crosshairs. The “limited take” proposal under review is not so limited. Basically you would allow, over a 4 year period, the killing of most of the breeding population in Florida for up to 400 breeders 

Every few years, FWC proposes to open a killing season for Goliath Groupers: in 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014 and now 2017. All past proposals were finally rejected in view of the scientific evidence and stakeholder opposition. But this time is different. This time, FWC is openly ignoring science right from the start.

Who is pressuring you for such ill-planned management of an endangered species?

I bet it’s the trophy fishing lobby. They must be itching to kill a magnificent fish, just to take a picture of the dead beast and let it rot in the sun. Because Goliath Groupers have such high levels of methyl mercury they are unsafe for human consumption. You must feel so proud to be enablers again of a new wildlife crime.

But here is the beauty of reality. You can’t block the sun with one finger. You can’t ignore the scientific evidence confirming that Goliath Groupers have not recovered to pre-exploitation levels, and cannot handle fishing pressure without entering again in a spiral towards extinction. For some unknown reason, FWC continues to believe the zombie myth (because it never dies) that Goliath Groupers eat everything in the reef, so they are blamed for decreasing fish and lobster stocks. The reality is that overfishing, not Goliath Groupers, is the reason for the declines. The scientific research is in your files. Read it. Stop denying science.

Finally, to give your ill-inspired killing proposal some degree of fairness, you have organized a series of Goliath Grouper Workshops so people can provide “input on goliath grouper management, including the possibility of a limited harvest in Florida state waters”. The long list of public workshops gives the appearance of a balanced survey design to get people’s input

http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/rulemaking/workshops/

But when the workshop locations are plotted on a map it seems your workshop strategy is biased. Because the people who will be most negatively affected by opening a harvest on Goliath Groupers, are the people who will have the least opportunities to provide face-to-face input.

 

Pins-FL Map FWC Workshops

Only 20 % of the workshops (Lake Worth, Stuart and Davie) can be realistically attended by the SCUBA dive businesses that rely heavily on recreational SCUBA divers who pay big money to see the Goliath Grouper spawning aggregations in East Florida between late August and early October, just when transition between the summer and winter seasons will leave these businesses in the doldrums. Will the comments collected in the workshops have the same weight that the comments collected online? http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/rulemaking/comments/

To summarize, Goliath Groupers are worth more alive than dead

Slide1Slide2

Opening a fishing season (the “limited take”) will end 27 years of protection in only 4 years. In order to please trophy fishers, you risk cheating all Americans of our national treasure, because nowhere else in the world you can encounter a functional population of Goliath Groupers as in Florida. The take is not supported by scientific research. Do the right thing and stop this madness. Reject the limited take, and continue the ban on Goliath Grouper harvest.

 

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)

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