May 2, 2012
I have held my tongue for much of this debate of late, but I can no longer sit and listen to commentary from those who have little to no idea what they are talking about. If anyone thinks that spearfishing is the cause of the demise of Bermuda’s black grouper, in my humble opinion they are just plain wrong. Yet many commercial fishermen and some members of the general public will go on at length about how spearfishermen are responsible. The reality is that spearfishing accounts for a small fraction of total black groupers taken in Bermuda.
Historically the bulk of the damage was done by fish pots, both legal and now illegal. Currently the bulk of the harvest is done by commercial fishing which uses traditional hook and line bottom fishing and lately, inshore trolling as the primary method of capture. There are also some commercial fishermen who leave standing gear in the form of an anchor to a surface buoy off of which was tied a baited line. The two latter methods are ruthlessly efficient. One fisherman even boasted that he had taken hundreds of black groupers in a season. That is just one fisherman! I believe the anchor line method has now been outlawed and is considered an offence by fisheries or soon will be. Trolling has proven to be the most popular method and I know fishermen personally who have taken several black grouper a week when the bite is on. Both of these methods are also employed by recreational hook and line fisherman, also with good success.
When line fishing, you reel in whatever bites and can inflict decompression injuries or mortal hook wounds to heart or gills when fish are not lip hooked but swallow the bait completely or if they break off with stainless hooks still embedded in them trailing lengths of heavy test line. But with fewer options for quarry through the winter months, coupled with a good price at market, the onslaught continues.
By contrast, spearfishermen are lucky to get a shot at a black grouper even if they see them in numbers. Remember these are pole spears we are talking about not spear guns. It is taxing work to hold ones breath for an extended period of time in order to even get close enough to one of these fish to have a chance at a shot. Sure, a handful of divers will get a lucky break and some rookies will probably take an ill placed shot with less than adequate gear. I have heard the concerns of the scuba community when they saw a grouper swimming around with half a spear still stuck in it. There will always be exceptions, but they are in the minority.
We also have a few people on our roads who speed or drink and drive, but we don’t then ban everyone as a result do we? No, we try to enforce the laws and remove that element. Spearfishing is by far a much more sustainable method of fishing. Depth of fishing is limited (for the even above average spearfishermen) to relatively shallow water in comparison to line fishing. The best divers Bermuda has can hunt depths in the 60-80ft range. Sure a few can dive in excess of 100ft but believe me when I tell you, diving to a depth and hunting a depth are two entirely different things. You also virtually eliminate the possibility of taking or injuring undersized fish as you are looking at your quarry and can see if it is too small. If in doubt, don’t spear it.
There was a study done in Australia (which includes the use of the much more effective spear guns by a very keen spearfishing community) which showed that spearfishing accounted for less than one percent of total catch in comparison to recreational and commercial fishing. It has spawned an interesting article, worth a read if you are interested in seeing some of the stats. http://www.chbf.com/documents/sustainable_spearfishing.pdf I would bet this percentage is less in Bermuda despite the high quality of some of our divers as we are restricted to use of a polespear.
Are there spearfishermen who sell their catch? Maybe, and it is wrong, but I’d wager it is a very small fraction of illegal sales as compared to those of the recreational line fishery just by volume of catch alone and for every spearfisherman who flouts the law there is probably a commercial or recreational line fisherman of equally low moral standing that does much more damage with his methods of fishing.
So why go after just the spearfishermen? Where is the logic in that? And I truly feel for the honest commercial fishermen, some of whom are close personal friends of mine who have to suffer due to their irresponsible, morally corrupt colleagues.
To make matters worse, our fisheries officers have been hamstrung by budget cuts to their department and they struggle to police the laws already in place. They have managed to get a few cases to trial only to have offenders let off with light sentences. They have even caught commercial fishermen outright with illegal fish pots that still hold their fishing licenses! This does great damage to the morale of the officers who are trying to uphold the laws. We can have all the laws and regulations we want but if we have no one to police them it is a moot point. Why is a fisheries officer going to perform his duties enthusiastically when he thinks that nothing will come from his efforts?
As for black groupers feeding on lionfish, there is very little evidence to show that live lion fish are predated on by black groupers. There have been a few isolated reports from the Caribbean of groupers caught with a lionfish in its gut but it isn’t known whether these groupers were caught in traps which could increase their likelihood of eating a lionfish stuck in the same trap. The problem is that lionfish are apex reef predators just like the larger groupers and fear nothing. As such, combined with their slow movement, they do not dart about with evasive manoeuvres and trigger a feeding response from bigger fish such as black groupers.
There are however some enthusiastic efforts ongoing to teach reef fish and sharks to eat lionfish by offering dead lionfish at popular scuba dive sites throughout the Caribbean which hold large groupers and sharks. I applaud these efforts. They are having some success in that they have documented Nassau groupers, sharks and moray eels taking the dead offerings at feeding sites but none have been seen to eat a live offering. One only has to look at the fantastic footage taken by Graham Maddocks and his team showing Bermuda’s black grouper spawning aggregations to see that Bermuda’s grouper grounds are littered with lionfish and that they swim about with little regard for the large population of groupers swimming right past them. Not once was a grouper seen to be showing any interest in pursuing a lionfish. (Before the question is asked, yes, groupers feed when in and around spawning aggregations. It is not due to lack of interest at pursuing a meal. That is why we have seasonal protection of our grouper grounds in the first place!) I have only noted one video on YouTube with a black grouper showing any interest in a live lionfish and it didn’t follow through to consumption. I’d be glad to hear if anyone knows of any further evidence.
On the subject of Bermuda as a spearfishing destination with a focus on our large black groupers, I am against it. I don’t think that our reef platform is large enough to sustain a large influx of outside divers without adverse effect. I believe that this would create a pool of highly capable divers many times larger than the current number we have. We are not the like Bahamas with millions of square miles of reef platform. So while I applaud the idea of trying to bring more tourist dollars to our economy, I don’t think this is the best way to achieve that. Perhaps if we were talking about offshore spearing of pelagic fish such as wahoo, (we are often sited in sport fishing magazines as an international hot spot when they are in season here) that would be one thing. They have much higher rates of growth and reproduction. But sending and invitation to the world to hunt our big black groupers would not end well for us or the groupers. In my opinion I think that we should just shut up and enjoy and maintain what we have. Some may disagree with me but, respectfully, that is my stance.
There is no one in Bermuda who cares more about the survival of a sustainable fishery of black groupers than me. I have been fishing and spearfishing for more than 30 years in Bermuda and I have enjoyed seeing the gradual comeback of these fish since the ban of fish pots. I can only go from what I see when I get in the water or put in a fishing line and I have seen and hooked more big groupers in the last five to ten years than I have previously when diving or fishing the same areas. I would love nothing more than to see the population increase for the next generation to enjoy. All of this debate over the fate of our grouper fishery seems to me to be more about the sales figures of a few of in the commercial fleet than it is about the state of the fish stocks. If that is the case, then I believe the solution is to give more support to fisheries both financially and in the courts in order that they may effectively police the laws that are already in place. Let’s put a stop to the recreational catch going into the restaurants no matter what the method of harvest was.
Heavier fines for offences may help. It’s no good fining someone less for taking too many black groupers than they can make back in the sale of one fish! That is not deterrent enough. We need more action like that taken for the West Indian Top Shell case last year. And why not take away a commercial license? At least suspend it for an amount of time so as to make it a deterrent. Cooperate when a fisheries warden checks your boat. They are doing their job to protect your best interests. If you have nothing to hide then you should have no problem with them performing spot checks. Further restricting the already heavily restricted spearfishing community is like trying to put out the dump fire with a garden hose.
Education is also paramount. I bumped into a Bermudian gentleman and his son at the beginning of the 2011-2012 lobster season who had just purchased a new polespear and were keen to get started. I complimented him on his choice of fishing and asked what he thought of the new spearfishing licensing. He had no clue that he even needed a licence much less what he was allowed to take and from where he could take it! Many in Bermuda think it is OK to go spearfishing off the rocks. They have no clue and this skews the public’s perception of spearfishermen. This needs to change.
In conclusion, I would ask that before anyone feels like taking a swing at the spearfishing community please think about the big picture and don’t jump to conclusions based in ignorance of facts and secondhand information.
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