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South Florida's coral reef is being overfished. Nearly a dozen species are nearing unsustainable numbers

a snorkeler is viewed through a school of fish at dry tortugas national park
National Park Service
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Marine preserves that banned fishing in parts in Dry Tortugas National Park in 2001 led to an increase in not only the number but the size of snapper and grouper species.

Florida’s beleaguered coral reefs, already battling disease, pollution and rising temperatures driven by climate change, now have another deepening problem: disappearing reef fish.

A new study has found that 85 percent of popular grouper and snapper species have been overfished and fallen below sustainable numbers. The study, by researchers from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, modeled 20 years' worth of survey data on 15 species to determine levels needed for the fish to survive.

The researchers warned the fish are now in need of "urgent management intervention."

The findings echo warnings made more than two decades ago by some of the same researchers who found 70 percent of Keys reef fish were overfished. Those warnings helped spur the creation of a controversial marine preserve around the Dry Tortugas but could not overcome stiff resistance to restricting fishing on more popular parts of the reef.

Researchers say now time is running out.

“The state legislature declares this the fishing capital of the world. Well, the fishing capital of the world is like Beirut. We’re getting bombed,” Rosenstiel fisheries scientist and lead author Jerry Ault said. “It’s time to fix it.”

Improved data and modeling have allowed researchers to gain a better, although more bleak, understanding of the fish, Ault said. The fish studied are among the most sought after, often found on restaurant menus and prized by divers and anglers. They include yellowtail, lane and mutton snapper, hogfish and red, black and Nassau grouper, which help fuel a $6 billion-a-year South Florida fishing industry.

“Size limits, bag limits, area limits just have not been effective,” he said. “Had we followed the recommendations we made over two decades ago with the system, we might be in good shape these days. But it did not play out that way. The reality is, if we don't take care of it, we're on a slippery slope to a place I don't want to be."

To determine sustainable levels, the study looked at reproductive capacity of the stock and found that spawning fish need to reach at least 40 percent of historic levels. Nearly 100 percent of the fish fell below that level, with some dipping to as low as 5 percent, Ault said.

Ault developed risk profiles for each fish to give officials a better sense of outcomes, with probabilities attached to outcomes.

“The same math is used on Wall Street to calculate the probability of stocks going up or down, or hedge funds hedging against change.” he said.

snapper fknms noaa.jpg
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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Yellowtail snapper started to rebound after fishing preserves in Dry Tortugas National Park banned fishing in parts of the park.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission disagreed with the findings.

In an email, spokeswoman Melody Kilborn said the study presents an "interesting" way to look at data collected over time and do risk analysis. But just looking at fish on the reef fails to consider the full extent of the stock, she said. Instead, the state relies on a collaborative assessment process among regional fishery management councils and NOAA created in 2002 that looks at species individually across the entire Southeast Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico.

But only six of the 15 fish evaluated in the study have been assessed and only two have been updated in the last three years.

"You can't think about the reef system one species of time because they all kind of live together. So you need to think about this as a community," Ault said.

Researchers also tried to take a conservative approach, he said, by focusing on 15 species with the most reliable data "because we didn't want people pinging at the edges saying that's not the case. The case is pretty compelling because we have very solid data and then very substantive conclusions that suggest that we have a serious issue in the system.

Earlier this month, FWC commissioners tightened rules for dolphin fish to address steep declines, but loosened protections for goliath grouper, one of the species the study identified as falling below sustainable levels.

A NOAA spokeswoman said the findings would not be used in an ongoing review of federal management practices for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico because the study was published after recommendations were made by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

Not using the data in an ongoing review could defy rules put in place nearly a decade ago requiring NOAA to use the best and latest science available in developing rules.

“Managers are required to use the best available science and that includes recently published studies,” Miami Waterkeeper executive director Rachel Silverstein said.

To address the resistance researchers faced in the1990s, Ault said he tried to provide better context for what’s driving overfishing.

“The pushback was, oh, you know, it's as good as it ever was. And you'd say, ‘Well, how long have you been in the Florida Keys?’ Oh, six years. Eight years?" he said. "No institutional memory. Everything looks great. It's called shrinking baseline because I don't have any reference points. Well, in the paper, I tried to give reference points.”

Those points include explosive growth, from about 50,000 people in South Florida 140 years ago to more than 6 million today. Since 1964, the recreational fishing fleet has jumped by 410 percent and now numbers close to a million, with half the vessels located in South Florida. The number is expected to double by the 2030s, Ault said.

“So we've seen these radical changes in people, development, water quality and fishing pressure,” he said. “We have better communication systems, better vessels, hydro acoustics. So the fish, particularly fishes that sit on a reef, don't stand a chance. There's no place the fish can hide technically.”

The jumble of jurisdictions also means regulations can be inconsistent or leave them vulnerable to political influence in a fishing community where passions run high.

Federal authority is divided down the middle of the reef, with the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council overseeing the east side and the west controlled by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. The state also shares control in state waters.

“Occasionally they work together, but South Florida has fallen in another pit because you have this regional dichotomy going on,” he said.

goliath grouper demaria key west library.jpg
Monroe County Public Library
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Earlier this month, Florida wildlife officials lifted some restrictions on goliath grouper in state waters in the Gulf of Mexico and other parts of Florida. Bans remain in place from Martin County to the Keys and Dry Tortugas.

South Florida's three national parks, which create management plans to protect resources like fish, are also embedded in those layers.

Sharing control can put the state and federal authorities at odds. In 2020, Florida increased size limits for some of the fish, but has opposed creating no-fishing preserves around reefs to try to boost numbers.

But in 2015, when Biscayne National Park tried to create off-limits preserves across 10,500 acres for a fraction of the 225 square-mile park, the state opposed them.

Planning on the management plan had been underway for 15 years and included more than 40,000 public comments. The park cited previous work by Ault and NOAA documenting 70 percent declines in about 17 species. Park Superintendent Brian Carlstrom warned the park was at a tipping point.

But as the plan neared completion, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson introduced legislation to block the preserves. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen went a step further and proposed a bill that would have changed fisheries management nationwide by requiring states everywhere to sign off on regulations in federally protected waters that fall in state territory.

Fishing preserves aren't the only solution, Ault said, but they will need to be back on the table.

“When I started, nobody was paying attention to the coral reef. The state guys would point offshore and say, well, that's a federal responsibility, and the federal guys would look inshore and say, Well, you know, that's a state responsibility, and in between it went,” Ault said.

But in the years since, the amount of data and modeling has allowed fishery estimates to become more sophisticated and better inform rules, he said.

"The reason I wrote this paper is to reduce the amount of wiggle room they have not to make a good decision, right? Here, this is compelling evidence," he said. "So it's been a building block process, stone by stone by stone. But we've got a wall now.”

This story was updated to include FWC's response.