Four-point plan for reversing reef fish population decline
On Tuesday, December 13, I attended a presentation on the Bermuda Ocean Prosperity Plan at the Aquarium. The presentation was designed to enable the diving community to learn about the plan, ask questions and give comments.
The draft plan aims to prevent fishing in about 20 per cent of our waters which is well below the international standard of 30 per cent commonly accepted as necessary to preserve and increase fish stocks over time. There would be an approximate doubling of current no fishing zones. This is an oversimplification of the proposed plan which is very comprehensive and needs to be read to be fully appreciated.
As an underwater photographer, I have dived much of the Bermuda platform, all of the buoyed dive sites and as a divemaster for several years I would guide divers around dive sites for a couple of dive operators. In conjunction with the Bermuda Zoological Society I authored a photo book, Bermuda Reef Portraits, and its online successor, Bermuda Reef Life HD app. I therefore feel qualified to comment on the current status of the Bermuda reef system. I would add that I am not a scientist and only wish to to offer my observations.
During the presentation it emerged that the once-thriving grouper population is declining massively, such that they are rarely seen by divers any more. It is true that Bermuda is the Parrotfish Capital of the World but the decline in large reef fish including groupers (a few we used to see like the Nassau Grouper are now locally extinct), grey snappers, and hogfish (probably due in part to spear fishing) is exceptionally worrying. There has also been a drastic decline in lobsters that used to be seen on every dive.
Over the last 2 years I have probably undertaken over 50 dives and have seen a Black Grouper only once, whereas in the past on certain dive sites I would see several every time I dived them. Other large fish and lobsters have declined such that I now cannot be bothered to carry a camera with me. I still love diving but I have too many pictures already of parrotfish. There has been some success in restoring the red hind population thanks to good management by Fisheries.
Scuba diving visitors to Bermuda comment that our corals are in great condition, the parrotfish are wonderful, but where, they ask, are the large fish and in particular the top reef predators? The answer of course is that they have been largely fished out. Thank goodness we have wrecks to dive and calm sub-tropical waters with great visibility. I have taken at least 30 overseas dive vacations and met many scuba divers who ask about Bermuda. I regret to say that I can no longer recommend that they come to Bermuda to dive unless they are interested in shipwrecks.
The commercial fishermen are up in arms that the draft proposals take away some of their fishing sites and widen the protection for others. They are concerned that they may be losing inshore areas where they fish for bait as they cannot afford to buy bait like recreational fishermen.
They and the dive operators comment that there is very little enforcement of existing rules and they are correct. I am sure the individuals charged with enforcement are doing their best, but there are too few of them and the areas for enforcement are too large.
So what can we do to preserve and hopefully increase the fish population in Bermuda, so that recreational users, commercial operators and fishermen, do not end up with an ocean that is barren of everything except damselfish that flourish in the absence of predator fish and destroy corals and of course our lovely parrotfish?
The answer is fourfold in my opinion:
1. Dramatically increase enforcement to prevent illegal fishing. More boats, more crews more technology etc
2. All stakeholders including commercial fishermen to recognise that we have a serious problem and now is the time to take positive steps to preserve and hopefully expand our declining fish stocks. Fishermen must work with the other stakeholders. The Government must take the lead in this and not give in to pressure groups for the sake of votes.
3. Representatives of commercial fishermen be provided the opportunities to talk with their peers in jurisdictions in which no fishing zones of usually 30 per cent have been successfully established to regenerate fish and also to the fishermen associated with the Little Cayman Moon Grouper Project.
4. Government needs to publish the figures on our declining catches which will ensure that the wider community understands the problem.