Space to Live, Places to Spawn

Protected ocean areas would help fish populations thrive

Space to Live, Places to Spawn

Fish have hangouts. Some young fish favor shallow water. Some older fish prefer to be where waters run deeper. And sometimes fish swim hundreds of miles to meet up with a big group and reproduce. Protecting the right places where fish can live and spawn is a major step toward ensuring plenty of fish for healthy ocean ecosystems.

Fishery managers in the southeastern United States are discussing proposals for protecting places that would provide havens for deep-water fish while continuing to allow trolling for surface-dwelling fish.

Setting aside small areas where deep-water fishing would be restricted can help imperiled fish, such as speckled hind and warsaw grouper, whose populations have plummeted to dangerously low levels because of overfishing. The sites also can aid in the recovery of depleted species, such as red snapper, red porgy, and red grouper, which need more time than some other species to reach their best spawning years.

Havens old and new

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is considering redesigning four of its eight protected areas to capture spawning sites for speckled hind and warsaw grouper along the edge of the continental shelf. Managers also are weighing locations for additional sites of prime deep-water habitat for snapper and grouper.

Adding it up

  • 266,155 square miles—federal jurisdictional waters in the U.S. South Atlantic.
  • 785 square miles—existing system of protected areas (0.29 percent of South Atlantic federal waters).
  • 1,093 square miles—potential expanded system of protected areas (0.4 percent of South Atlantic federal waters).
  • 8 percent—amount of speckled hind and warsaw grouper prime habitat protected by current system of protected areas.
  • 24 percent—maximum amount of speckled hind and warsaw grouper prime habitat that could be protected under expanded system.
  • 20 to 40 percent—amount of prime habitat scientists recommend should be protected. (Source: Gaines et al., 2010) 

The plight of imperiled fish

Overfishing has driven populations of warsaw grouper and speckled hind to dangerously low levels. Even though fishing for these deep-water species is prohibited, they still face many threats, among them:

  • Fishermen can snare these species accidentally when targeting other deep-dwelling fish. Quickly pulling speckled hind or warsaw grouper to the surface can often cause fatal internal injuries.
  • These species reproduce later in life than many fish, but too many are caught before they can spawn.
  • These fish start life as females, then some develop into males once mature. Catching them before this critical sex change could deplete the male population and potentially throw natural reproduction out of balance.

Old protection plan lifted

In 2012, fishery managers in the South Atlantic reopened fishing for six species in waters deeper than 240 feet offshore from North Carolina to Florida. Targeting the six deepwater species—snowy grouper, blueline tilefish, yellowedge grouper, misty grouper, queen snapper, and silk snapper—had been prohibited since 2011 because too many speckled hind and warsaw grouper were being caught accidentally by anglers targeting these other fish that live in the same areas and at similar depths.

Compare the amount of federal waters closed to deep-water fishing under the old plan and potential new protections:

  • 55 percent under the old plan.
  • 0.3 to 0.4 percent under potential new system of protected areas.

Conservation groups, including the environment group of The Pew Charitable Trusts, objected to the reopening because alternative measures to protect these species had not been implemented, leaving the fish vulnerable to continued overfishing. The proposal to improve and expand the region's system of marine protected areas could help save these valuable species.

Status (both fish)

Critically Endangered—International Union for Conservation of Nature
Species of Concern—National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Endangered—American Fisheries Society
Undergoing Overfishing—National Marine Fisheries Service