Studies indicate that nearly one third of global sea fisheries have already collapsed and that the rate of decline is accelerating. One billion people, the world over, rely on seafood (fish and shellfish) as either their main or sole source of protein, thus the current state of the world’s fisheries is a matter of great concern.
Amidst this background of declining fisheries, the Buccoo Reef Trust has embarked on a Campaign to raise awareness of important ocean conservation issues and to shift the purchasing habits of consumers, restaurateurs and other seafood purveyors to sustainable sources of seafood. Sustainable sources of seafood are defined as seafood originating from species, wild-caught or farmed, that can exist in the long-term through maintained or increased stock abundance and conservation of the structure, function, biodiversity and productivity of the surrounding ecosystem. If consumers are provided with recommendations and background information regarding the fish products they buy, they will be better equipped to make more environmentally sound choices.
Phase I of this project involved the production of this Species Evaluation Report. In this report the ten most popular seafood species in Tobago (kingfish, wahoo, flyingfish, dolphinfish, tuna, snapper, grouper, conch, lobster and shrimp), as determined from a survey of local restaurants, were evaluated based on 5 criteria (adopted from prominent seafood evaluation guidelines) and then assigned an overall sustainability recommendation of: Best Choice, Good Alternative or Avoid.
Three species received an Overall Sustainability Recommendation of Avoid: Queen Conch, Grouper and Snappers.
The evaluation report for this species reveals that Queen conch, (Strombus gigas), is inherently vulnerable to fishing pressure. They mature at a late age compared to other conch species, are highly vulnerable to predation as juveniles, and inhabit nearshore shallow waters making them easy targets for fishers. Furthermore, they form huge spawning aggregations, which makes it easier for them to be exploited in large numbers during the breeding cycle and when populations are too sparse, the adults no longer breed. With respect to stock status, throughout much of its range, the queen conch is overfished, and many fisheries have been closed because of overfishing. Because of international concerns about the continuing decline in stocks, queen conch was placed on CITES Appendix II (species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled) in 1992. A 2003 review by CITES found that just two conch-exporting nations (Jamaica and Turks/Caicos) had adequate management and stocks that were “probably not overfished” while most other nations needed to conduct stock assessments and take basic steps to curb rampant illegal fishing. In Trinidad and Tobago there are signs that stocks are near collapse and there is no management plan for conch at present.
Groupers, like conch, possess a suite of life history characteristics which make them highly susceptible to overfishing. Apart from being long-lived (12-41 years), with slow growth rates and a long population doubling time, groupers exhibit a phenomenon know as “protogyny”. This means that they begin their lives as females and then some portion of the population transforms into males as they become larger. The consequence of this is that, since the largest members of grouper populations are likely be male and fishing pressure is often focused on the largest individuals; sex ratios can be rapidly altered with the removal of the larger males. To compound the overfishing scenario even further, groupers form dense spawning aggregations at the same sites (site fidelity) year after year. This predictability allows fishermen to catch a large number of fish in a short space of time. The decline in spawning aggregations ultimately results in the reduction of the population because fewer and fewer fish are reproducing each year. In some cases intense fishing on these aggregations can result in the extinction of an aggregation.
Two of the most popular grouper species locally are the yellowmouth, (Epinephelus flavolimbatus), and yellowedge, (Mycteroperca interstitialis), grouper. In recent times a decrease in the catch rates at traditional fishing grounds has lead to an expansion of the fishery into new areas. This suggests that stocks are fished beyond yields that the population can sustain. Long-term and short-term trends in biomass for most of these stocks are unknown. There is no management plan for the fishing of grouper stocks in Trinidad and Tobago. Anecdotal information suggests that stocks have declined and there is urgent need to put management measures in place immediately.
The two main snappers landed in Tobago are the plumhead/vermilion snapper (Rhomboplites aurorubens) and the Caribbean red snapper (Lutjanus purpureus). Preliminary stock assessments conducted on these snappers landed by the Fishpot fishery of Tobago in 1993 indicated that, at that time, these stocks were over-exploited and fully exploited respectively. Recommendations arising from this study were never implemented. No recent assessment has been conducted on snappers in local waters hence there are no estimates of biomass, optimum yield or maximum sustainable yield (MSY). There is no management plan for snappers at the sub-regional or national level. In the absence of a biological data collection programme for snappers it is highly unlikely that a stock assessment could be performed or that a management plan could be formulated in the near future.
The project was funded by the Travel Foundation, a UK-based foundation that was created in 2003 with the aim of making tourism more sustainable. The Foundation’s trustees, which include some of the UK’s largest tour operators, have chosen to focus much of Foundation’s effort on Tobago – one of the few remaining unspoilt destinations in the Caribbean and a popular destination for UK tourists.