There Is Hope For The Nassau Grouper

Nassau Grouper with Okra Fungi

Do you remember what it was like to sit down to a dinner of Nassau grouper with Creole Sauce? Maybe you had it with a little okra fungi on the side?  It was delicious. And sublime. And, unfortunately, a meal you probably haven’t had in years.

Due to overfishing, the Nassau grouper is now endangered and has earned its position on the IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species. Because of their gentle, friendly nature, fidelity to a spawning location and favored position on the menu, stocks have been decimated and indeed, entire spawning locations wiped out.

As a result of the grouper’s decline, regulations and policy have been put in place to help facilitate change.

Federal regulation now make it illegal to spear, catch and keep Nassau grouper in Federal and Territorial waters.

So, How Can You Help?

As a marker of the success of conservation efforts, we are beginning to have sightings of juvenile Nassau throughout the Territory. The young groupers stays close to shore, moving into deeper water as they mature. It takes 5-8 years for them to reach sexual maturity so it is vitally important the juvenile are not fished.

Scientists are conducting studies on the abundance and distribution of this species in order to help the Virgin Islands rebuild Nassau grouper populations for fishing (and eating!) They could use your help. Contact the VI Marine Advisory Service if you catch or see a Nassau grouper and tell them where you found the fish. Then of course, release it!

Contact VIMAS at 340-693-1672 to report sightings.

Nassau grouper
There are so many species of grouper, how can you tell the difference? The Nassau can change color at will depending on their mood, transitioning from their normal state with caramel-colored bars to a two-toned complexion, to milky white. The black spot on the tail, seen clearly in the photo above, and spots around the eyes, are enduring Nassau markings that can make you confident in your identification.

Winter Spawning Rituals

In winter, as we enjoy cool, breezy mornings, the Nassau put aside their normally solitary and territorial tendencies to gather in great numbers, returning to the same sites every year for their spawning events. This January, a record number of 240 grouper have been counted on Grammanik Bank which is a deep-water aggregation site offshore of St. Thomas, VI.

Researchers from the University of the Virgin Islands have tracked these fish traveling up to 30 km or more to the spawning site. So even though 240 fish sounds like a lot they represent the entire spawning population for over 500 square km around the VI. There used to be over 5000 Nassau at the spawning site before they were fished out.

During a spawning event, the female grouper is pursued by the males who attempt to encourage her to expel her eggs. To do so she will shoot to the surface and spew a cloud of eggs while simultaneously the males will expel sperm. Before long, with many grouper spawning at the same time, the sea becomes a milky, swirling cloud.

Eggs are fertilized in the water column and exist for a time as planktonic larvae. If they are not eaten, they will eventually settle on the ocean floor as juveniles.

Nassau grouper,Epinephelus striatus
The Nassau are territorial and prefer to stay close to home. An interesting fact: most Nassau are born female. They are protogynous hermaphrodites. They become male as they grow larger and are more able to dominate others. They often spawn as female for a time before transitioning to a dominant male.

Seeing a Nassau grouper is exciting! With continued awareness and conservation efforts, we hope it will no longer be a rare event. UVI Research Professor of Zoology and Marine Biology, Dr. Rick Nemeth has spearheaded the Save The Nassau Grouper campaign and works closely with the local community of legislators and fishers to ensure their recovery.


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