Imperiled South Atlantic Fish Left Unprotected

Groups seek safeguards for “extremely vulnerable” Speckled Hind and Warsaw Grouper

Washington, D.C. (June 8, 2012) – Two critically imperiled species of deepwater grouper – speckled hind and Warsaw grouper – must be protected from overfishing immediately, according to a lawsuit filed today by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Ocean Conservancy.

“The government arbitrarily removed protections necessary to stop overfishing these extremely vulnerable species,” said NRDC attorney David Newman. “Healthy fish populations mean a healthy fishing industry into the future. By providing immediate protections, we ensure they will still be there for our children and our grandchildren to catch.”

Speckled hind and Warsaw grouper are “extremely vulnerable to overfishing,” according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), as they grow slowly, can live up to 40 years, and tend to spawn in groups. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifies Warsaw grouper and speckled hind as “critically endangered,” and they are listed as “endangered” by the American Fisheries Society. NMFS has listed both as “Species of Concern,” one step short of Endangered Species Act listing.

The groups filed the lawsuit against NMFS and other federal defendants in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The suit asserts that NMFS has unlawfully allowed the vulnerable fish to continue to be subject to overfishing, including failing to sufficiently reduce incidental catch (called “bycatch”), in waters from North Carolina to Florida.

In addition to seeking immediate protection, NRDC and Ocean Conservancy are urging the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to follow through on their previously announced plans to establish spawning and habitat protections for speckled hind and Warsaw grouper. If implemented correctly this plan would protect these depleted species and permit increased fishing for other species at the same time. These efforts must be comprehensive and put in place before it’s too late for the fish.

“Speckled hind and Warsaw grouper are in trouble right now. The decision to remove protections without having an alternative ready was not only rash, but against the law. It is too risky to leave these fish unprotected, and the law requires that safeguards be in place,” said Chris Dorsett, Ocean Conservancy’s Director of Fish Conservation and Gulf Restoration.

NMFS’s decision last month left the two imperiled fish species at risk by opening up deep waters they had previously protected in the South Atlantic, including the habitats where mature fish aggregate to reproduce. As a result, speckled hind and Warsaw grouper are once again being caught unintentionally by fishing boats seeking other species that share the same waters.

This action reverses NMFS’s decision from just 18 months ago, intended to stop overfishing of the two depleted species due to unintentional catch and to protect them from further decline. NMFS also previously stated that these protections were necessary to comply with their legal mandate to end overfishing, but then changed course last month.

The decision to allow overfishing is out of step with the progress being made nationally. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is making progress in addressing the problem of overfishing and had growing success in rebuilding fish species that were once severely depleted. According to a recent NMFS report, the law has already helped to rebuild more than 27 different species across the country since 2000, including summer flounder, bluefish, haddock, and sea scallop.

Protecting species from overfishing and depletion is critical to preserving the future of the fishing industry. Without stable fish populations, there will be shorter or nonexistent fishing seasons—a huge blow to the commercial and recreational fishing industries and the jobs they support. Taking action to preserve populations before it’s too late is critical to the long-term health of the fishing industry and coastal economy.

Warsaw grouper can reach seven feet and 450 pounds, while speckled hind can grow to three and a half feet and weigh up to 65 pounds.  One of the main reasons they’ve become so scarce is that they’re all born as females and only transform into males upon maturity, at about six to nine years of age. This means when most of the larger, older males have been removed by fishing, the species simply can’t reproduce to healthy numbers. A recent comparison of catch found no speckled hind older than 10 years by the mid-2000’s, whereas fish as old as 35 years were caught in the late 1970’s, indicating that the older, larger individuals had been removed by fishing.