Fishermen split by reef predator report
The surest way to secure Bermuda's reef fishing industry is to impose further restrictions and a ban on the sale of certain species according to lifelong fisherman Alan Card.
Members of Bermuda's fishing communities have weighed in on a report released by reef scientist Thad and Jessie Murdoch, which claims that the numbers of Bermuda's reef predators are “critically low”.
The report released through the Bermuda Reef Ecosystem Assessment and Mapping (Bream) Programme, draws on data collected from 2004 to 2011 from 180 reefs across all of the island's reef habitats. Dr Murdoch believes that if we ignore the loss of predatory fish that help to manage our coral reefs, it is likely that the reefs will erode.
Calling on further restrictions, the report has attracted a varied response, with one fisherman claiming he has seen an abundance of most predatory reef fish and another proposing a ban on the commercial sale of some species including the black grouper, otherwise known as rock fish.
Alan Card has been a commercial fisherman all his life and while he used to catch local predatory reef fish, his focus has switched to pelagics such as wahoo and tuna that pass by the island from other countries.
He told The Royal Gazette: “I do very little reef fishing, one of the reasons being it is not practical to do it anymore because of decreased stocks.
“Most of the major grouper species are now commercially extinct — how long will it be before we wipe out the black grouper and hinds? Out on the banks, they are so depleted it is almost not worth putting a line down on the bottom. Sure, the fishermen can go there and make a few dollars because the fish that they are selling now is fish that 30 years ago was thrown away as trash. They are targeting conies and people wouldn't buy them then.”
Mr Card says a total ban on the sale of black grouper in Bermuda should be considered: “I would make black grouper a non-commercial species. The spear fishers can also target a grouper.”
Speaking on the claim by some fishermen that further restrictions would limit their ability to earn a living, Mr Card suggested that so would further depleted fish stocks: “Of course they don't want to see additional restrictions — it is their livelihood. That doesn't alter the fact that if there are no fish then nobody is going to have a future.”
Commercial fisherman Michael Barnes, who took issue with the report saying that from anecdotal evidence gleaned from his 42 years of fishing, black groupers are “thick” in the water as are the other predatory reef fish outlined in the report — red hind, cony and snappers.
Calling this newspaper after reading our original article on Dr Murdoch's report, he said: “If we go any further with the bans, fishing is just going to stop. Black groupers are thicker now than they have ever been. The snappers are as thick as I have ever seen them, the conies right now are basically the same and the hinds have increased big time.”
Mr Barnes said that further restrictions in Bermuda's waters would sound a death knell for many fishermen's livelihoods.
“My son is 32 so I have to protect his future,” he said. “You don't need more restrictions because it is getting harder and harder to fish. I don't think they should relax the restrictions, but what they have in place now should stay there. The reefs have been protected for 27 years, most guys fish off shore.”
The Department of the Environment and Natural Resources said it recognised the research of Dr Murdoch and the importance of predatory fish to Bermuda's coral reef ecosystem saying it had already put in a number of management measures to aid the recovery of those species.
Recently, amendments to the Fisheries (Protected Areas) Order 2000 and the Fisheries Regulations 2010 were gazetted and include: Seasonal protection of grouper spawning aggregations; a bag limit of one black grouper per boat per day; and a bag limit of ten red hind per boat per day from May 1 until August 31.
In addition to those changes, amendments to the catch limits of red hind are currently being drafted, this newspaper can reveal. The new catch limits proposed will be ten red hind per boat per day year round for recreational fishers, ten red hind per boat per day from 1 May until 31 August for commercial fishers, and 50 red hind per boat per day in April for commercial fishers.
A ministry spokeswoman said: “The ministry is keenly aware of the need to manage its resident predatory fish stocks and is quite conscientious in its approach involving stakeholders when it modifies management measures. Not only does it rely on the relevant available scientific data, it seeks information from a diverse range of marine stakeholder groups. This includes the Marine Resources Board, the Commercial Fisheries Council and the Fisherman's Association of Bermuda.”
Former director for the Department of Agriculture and fisherman John Barnes said there were “no surprises” in Dr Murdoch's report and that the outcome is “not significantly different from the last reef survey conducted in Bermuda”.
He pointed to the Bermuda Zoological Society Reef Watch Annual Report of 2016 that claimed that predatory fish levels were unchanged since the levels seen in 2013.
John Barnes believes it may be a case of “too little, too late” and that more flexibility would be needed. He said: “Although the spawning sites are, for the most part, protected, the lack of flexibility in a legal structure makes full protection difficult. Last year, for whatever reason known only to the fish — predominantly red hinds — the fish aggregated prior to the protected period and fishermen took full advantage of it catching loads of red hinds, now a prized market fish, although once scorned in favour of the larger groupers.
“To try and address this issue, the period was extended this year and although fishermen tried to see if the same thing would happen by working the area prior to the order coming into effect, the aggregations had not been set up yet. Presumably, the fish were back on their normal schedule. That is an inherent part of the problem with groupers — they group to spawn and are then at their most vulnerable.”
John Barnes said that while black groupers, due to their smaller aggregation numbers, are less susceptible to the techniques that have reduced the numbers of other species, there “may be some scope for additional protection”. He said a new trolling technique has proved effective in catching them. “Inroads must have been made into what has to be a limited population.
“Any further restrictions would not be popular with fishermen who are already feeling the pinch.
“In the final analysis, such conservation measures fall in the purview of politicians and most would prefer to avoid such issues. The furore that followed the 1990 fish pot ban was well-documented and incredibly persistent — all the way to the Privy Council.”
While government's planned restrictions do not include taking black grouper off the commercial menu, Dr Murdoch hopes that at least some further restrictions may be considered. He told us: “My goal is to ensure we have lots of groupers of several species, for a long time into the future, and that locals can make a living catching them.
“We need lots of big healthy groupers to do that. We need to let them breed and to give them safe places to grow up so that they can do their job keeping the reef healthy and also give us food.
“Enforcement has minimal support. Recreational fishermen don't need licences, so it is hard to monitor and regulate. Most countries have at least minimal licensing for recreational fishermen. People are taking a common resource from the rest of us. That privilege should come with a licence.”