Safer Sex for Groupers in Belize Thanks to Protected Fish Spawning Sites

Caribbean reef fish such as the black grouper and mutton snapper spend much of their lives lurking in caves, patiently awaiting their next meal in solitude. But a few times a year, they gather by the thousands in spawning aggregations, where males and females swim into swirling formations and release their eggs and sperm into the sea in an act of synchronized bliss.

Those timeless biological rituals take place at specific sites at specific times – usually around the full moons of certain months – and have established themselves in the folklore of Caribbean fishermen. But unbridled exploitation threatens all the region’s spawning sites, and some of them have already been fished out of existence.

One example is a Nassau grouper spawning site in southern Belize where dozens of boats used to gather to fish during spawning. In the 1950s and ’60s, fishermen caught as much as 200 metric tons of fish per year at the site, but when biologists dove there at what should have been the spawning time in 2003, they counted just a few grouper.

In order to prevent such ecological disasters from being repeated at other spawning sites, two U.S.-based conservation groups – The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – are working with local NGOs and government agencies to identify, prioritize, protect, and sustainably manage all the remaining fish spawning aggregations sites along the Mesoamerican Caribbean Reef, which stretches along the eastern coasts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras.

According to marine biologist Will Heyman, Belize has 17 sites where spawning aggregations, or SPAGs, are known to take place. Scattered along the reef system, the sites would be hard to detect any time other than during spawning, but Heyman has noticed that they share some common characteristics: they are all on the ocean side of reef promontories where currents converge. Heyman, who did some of the first SPAG research in Belize as a senior marine  scientist for TNC, has used satellite imagery to find several previously unknown SPAG sites.

As a result of research on Belize ‘s SPAG sites, the country’s environmental groups began calling for their protection several years ago. A coalition of seven organizations called the Belize SPAG Working Group was formed in 2001 to compile information on the sites and make the case for their protection. Their concerted effort led to the country’s signing a decree in 2002 that prohibited fishing at 11 of the country’s SPAG sites. Since two SPAG sites were already protected, the new regulation brought the total to 13 protected sites in Belize.

“I feel that we have made great strides, but now the task is to see if the closure is actually working,” says Janet Gibson, head of WCS’s Belize program and the secretary of the SPAG Working Group. Gibson explains that the Working Group’s current priorities are coordinating monitoring of as many SPAG sites as possible, collecting data, educating the public, and improving conservation.

Monitoring efforts are focused on the Nassau grouper, which has suffered the most intensive fishing over the past century. Nassau grouper SPAGs have been fished out all over the Caribbean. Several prolific Nassau grouper SPAG sites in Belize were decimated years ago, but half a dozen viable ones have survived, albeit with relatively low numbers.

“Some sites are healthier than others, but even the best ones are just a shadow of what they used to be,” Gibson reports.

The SPAG research work is funded by the Oak Foundation, Summit Foundation, and the US Agency for International Development. Recent WCS research has unveiled troubling information in Glover’s Reef, Belize. Biologist Enric Sala estimates that 15,000 Nassau grouper once spawned at this atoll outside the barrier reef. But last year, researchers counted only 1,700 Nassau grouper at that site during the December to February spawning season. Sala estimates that in 2001, the site was being fished at a rate that would leave it barren by 2013, a statistical-backed prediction that was instrumental in the Belize fisheries minister’s decision to protect the country’s SPAG sites.

Sala’s research has involved tagging fish to track where they go after spawning, in order to better estimate how many are caught by fishermen over one year. He has found that at least 88 percent of the grouper who spawn at Glover’s Reef return year after year.

Will Heyman, who has looked at SPAG sites all over the Caribbean, has done most of his research at Gladden Spit, a SPAG site on the barrier reef in southeast Belize. He first became aware of spawning aggregations through interviews with fishermen as part of his work for TNC. He was told about places where fishermen could fill their boats with fish in a matter of hours during certain times of the year. But he didn’t grasp the magnitude of the biological phenomenon until fisherman Eloy Cuevas took him out to dive at Gladden Spit on a full moon day in May of 1998. Heyman dove alone shortly before dusk that day and witnessed a sight that changed his career – somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 cubera snapper, 20 to 40 pounds each, swimming in a spiral column 100 feet tall, as massive whale sharks passed overhead gorging on their clouds of spawn.

“I came out of the water sputtering,” the biologist remembers, “and I immediately started raising money for research and awareness of the importance of protecting those places.”

Friends of Nature, a local conservation group, co-manages and monitors Gladden Spit, with support from TNC. Last December, the group completed an unprecedented 24 months of steady monitoring, during which divers visited the site once every three days. Seven other organizations are monitoring SPAG sites during spawning months, providing the baseline data needed to better understand the SPAGs and evaluate the effectiveness of current protection measures.

The Working Group’s members collaborated in the development of a SPAG monitoring protocol, to ensure consistency of data and support training of monitors. TNC has published the protocol in English and Spanish and also developed a database. By using remote sensing data, TNC has identified 36 potential SPAG sites along the Mexican portion of the Mesoamerican Caribbean Reef and is working with two groups there to develop monitoring potential.

While SPAG monitoring has been steadily strengthened in Belize, conservation remains a challenge. WCS’s data for the past four years show a decrease from an estimated count of 3,100 Nassau grouper spawning in the 2000 season to 1,700 in 2004. Though this doesn’t necessarily mean that nearly half the fish that spawned at the site in 2000 have been killed, that could be the case. Members of the SPAG Working Group are concerned that spear fishing is taking a high toll on the grouper population, and the organization may advocate a ban on spear fishing in the country’s marine protected areas.

Patrolling of SPAG sites, many of which are far from cayes and often have rough seas, is a particular challenge. Most sites remain under the sole jurisdiction of the Belize Fisheries Department, which, according to many observers, is under-staffed and under-funded. At Glover’s Reef, WCS provides food, housing and varied logistical support to fisheries rangers, whereas WCS researchers augment their ability to patrol the area, but other SPAG sites receive much less vigilance.

Gibson explains that Glover’s Reef has fewer problems with Guatemalan and Honduran fishermen than protected areas farther to the south, but continues to suffer significant pressure from fishermen from northern Belize and nearby coastal communities. WCS works with residents of the cayes and coastal villages to get them to respect the ban on fishing at the SPAG site, but they have nevertheless found signs of continued fishing there. WCS education and outreach efforts have included producing posters and a television commercial to inform Belizeans about the importance of protecting SPAG sites.

An important strategy of WCS, TNC, and their partner groups has been to involve local fishermen in monitoring and protection, which provides them with an alternative income and educates them about conservation. In 2002, Heyman organized two SPAG monitoring courses for fishermen from Belize and various Caribbean countries, each of which spent a week in a camp on Lighthouse Reef Atoll. He says that every night the participants would sit in a circle and talk about what they’d learned that day and how it applied to their livelihoods. While some of the Belizean fishermen claimed that there were still plenty of fish left, and there was no need to close sites to fishing, participants from places like St Croix, where fish stocks have been decimated, challenged them and exhorted the Belizeans to protect their resources before it was too late.

Maya Gorrez, TNC conservation specialist in Belize, has trained and worked with various fishermen in SPAG site monitoring. She agrees that involving local anglers in research is essential. “Fishermen who have been involved in monitoring have become champions of conservation in their communities,” she says.

One such champion is Eloy Cuevas, who first took Will Heyman out to Gladden Spit in 1998. Since then, he has become increasingly involved in the research there. Like most of his neighbors in the coastal community of Monkey River, he has been hunting and fishing since he was a young man. But now he works in tourism and research, and is educating young people in his community to do the same.

“I used to fish at Gladden really hard. Night and day I used to fish out there,” Cuevas says, adding that the fishing in Belize is nothing like it used to be. “If we continue to use these sites like we have for the past 50 years, we’re going to lose them.”

Now, most of Cuevas’s income comes from guiding fly fishermen and other tourists, but the work he says he most enjoys is SPAG monitoring and other marine research, which he has done for TNC and the University of South Carolina. “It’s nice work, and I think we’re doing something great for the community and for future generations,” he says.

Though the situation remains difficult and efforts to protect the SPAG sites are relatively nascent, there are indications that those sites can recover. Gibson points to Caye Glory, a SPAG site where fishermen once caught as much as two tons of fish per day in the 1960s, but where divers counted only 21 Nassau groupers in 2001. During the last spawning season, biologists counted 1000 grouper at Caye Glory, an indication that protection and education can lead to SPAG site recovery.

–David Dudenhoefer

Contacts in Belize: Nestor Windevoxhel, TNC, #4 St. Charles Street, King’s Park, Belize City, tel +501/223-1747, fax +501/223-1715,, Maya Gorrez,,; Will Heyman,; Janet Gibson, WCS, PO Box 282, Belize City,

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