Local reef fairly healthy but big fish population down
Although our local coral reef's health is "pretty good" with plenty of small fish, there are not many big fish says DMWR Ecologist Doug Fenner.
Some species of big fish are so rare they have been rarely sighted in recent years and the question now is can they be restored.
Samoa News published an article in its July 20, 2012, issue voicing the concerns from the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR) Ecologist Ben Carroll about the declining numbers of sharks as well as some species of reef fish in the territory, due to low numbers and/or natural rarity and subsequent vulnerability to over-exploitation.
“The last time we looked at the health of our coral reef, we found that the health of it was pretty good,” said DMWR Ecologist Doug Fenner. “We found out that there are plenty of small fish, but there were not many big fish. There are only 4-8% as many reef sharks as there would be if there were no people here”.
“Bump-head parrots [fish] are now so rare, that scientists only see about one a year, even though they have searched large areas. If there were more of these big fish, there would more for fishermen to catch. But if we catch the last Bump-head parrot fish, we will have none for our children and grandchildren to catch. Fishing on the reef is now relatively light, but in the past it has been much more intense,” said Fenner.
With some of the questions being asked such as how to restore these big reef fish, can they recover by themselves if we do nothing, Fenner gave some possible options that could be done.
One option could be that we keep doing what we are doing and not change anything. “The laws we have now would stay in place and nothing would be done to help the big fish. There is relatively little fishing now on our reefs, much less than in the past. Probably heavy fishing in the past is why we have so few big fish. If fishing is light now, then maybe the big reef fish will recover on their own and we can continue to fish them and we do not need to have regulations to restrict fishing them,” he said.
However, Fenner explained it has been a couple of decades (20 years) or more since fishing pressure was heavy and they have not recovered yet. He asked, “How long should we wait for them to recover? Maybe only a small amount of fishing is enough to keep them from recovering. Many scientists think that is true of sharks and Bump-head parrot fish. If we do nothing, they may never or it may take a very long time”.
He went on to explain that for Bump-head parrot fish, there are so few, that the last ones could be caught and then we would have lost them and could not get them to recover, then there would be none for our children and grandchildren. “Then if that happened, anyone could fish all they wanted. There would be no extra work for enforcement officers and fishermen would not have to have to worry that the fish they have might be illegal”.
Another option Fenner spoke about was to declare some areas ‘closed areas’ to all fishing. These areas would not allow people to any kind of fish or anything else, at anytime. This would restrict fishing for the big fish in these areas, as well as small fish or any fish.
“There are already twelve community-based village closed areas, plus there is a proposal for the expansion of Fagatele Bay Sanctuary that would also involve some restrictions of fishing in particular areas. There is also a ‘No-Take’ at Fagamalo. One problem is that the closed areas are smaller than the area that sharks swim around in,” said Fenner. According to Fenner, sharks easily swim a few miles a day, so they will go outside the closed area and get caught. He added that small areas are ineffective for such big fish. “Small areas also protect the small fish, which do not need protection as much as the big fish, maybe not at all. More closed areas would restrict fishermen greatly, but not protect the sharks”.
“They could make fishing for these big reef fish illegal anywhere in the territory, but fishing for other reef fish could be left completely legal as it is today. Because they would be protected everywhere in the territory, they could not swim outside of the protected area and get caught. This would provide the highest level of protection of the species,” explained Fenner.
“It would not restrict fishing for any other kinds of reef fish, nor restrict commercial or subsistence fishermen. The regulation could be simple and clear, making possession of these fish illegal”. However he explained, that it would eliminate all fishing for these species everywhere in the territory. Fishermen would lose their right to catch these fish anywhere in the territory, at least until the big fish have recovered and fishing could be allowed (on a controlled basis) again.
He reiterated that these species are rare enough that fishermen are catching a very few of them now, so the loss of fish catch would be very small. Once the fish were restored, a larger catch could be allowed than is happening now. “It might be quite awhile before they are restored. The complete protection for these fish which this option would provide, would allow these fish to recover the fastest of any of the options,” he said.
Fenner also went on to say "closing all fishing" is not an option, because fish is good, healthy food, which help to feed people, particularly people who do not have a lot of money to buy food. “Most of the fish do not need protection. Only the largest kinds of reef fish need protection, so there is no reason to restrict fishing of small fish,” he said.