Strive To Survive
Why Should You Care If Grouper, Conch & Sea Turtles Go Extinct?
A plant or animal becomes extinct when the last living individual of its species dies, causing it to vanish from the earth forever. However, wildlife are often in danger of dying out long before the last few individuals are left. In many species of animals, populations have to be in the hundreds or even thousands for them to reproduce and continue to survive each year. It is time for us learn about the needs of conch, grouper and sea turtles so that these wildlife will flourish in the years to come instead of going extinct.
Species have been going extinct for millions of years; it is a natural part of the evolutionary process. For example, most of the species that existed during the time of dinosaurs have perished. Many probably went extinct because of sudden geological or climatic changes - possibly because of a large volcanic eruption or because of a giant meteor hitting the earth. Today however, species are going extinct because of abrupt changes brought about by humans. Habitat destruction, pollution and overconsumption are causing species to decline at a rate never before seen in history.
This loss of species is eroding the diversity of life on earth, and a loss of diversity can make all life vulnerable. Much can be learned about the condition of the planet's environment by looking at animals such as sea turtles. They have existed for over 100 million years, and they travel throughout the world's oceans. Suddenly, however, they are struggling to survive - largely because of things people are doing to the planet's oceans and beaches. But what does this mean for the human species?
It is possible that a world in which sea turtles, conch and grouper can not survive may soon become a world in which humans struggle to survive. If, however, we learn from our mistakes and begin changing our behavior, there is still time to save these animals from extinction. In the process, we will be saving some of the earth's most mysterious and time-honored creatures. We might just be saving ourselves too.
The Nassau Grouper is a valuable fisheries resource and an important part of the coral reef community. The grouper is usually found in caves, crevices and cracks of the reef. It is rarely found deeper than 90 feet. This fish often rests on the sea bottom, blending with its surroundings. Nassau groupers are found throughout the Caribbean Sea.
The Nassau Grouper is eaten by barracudas, lizard fish, dolphins, sharks and other large predators of the reef community but the predator that has had the biggest impact on the grouper population are humans. People are fishing groupers before they can grow to sexual maturity and reproduce.
Sex change may also cause a problem. In undisturbed areas there are usually equal numbers of male and females. In heavily fished areas there are often three or more time females than males. This means that many eggs will not be fertilized during spawning. Other threats include habitat destruction, coral breakage from divers, siltation form construction, runoff from logging and agriculture, dredging sewage, oil spills and other contaminants that harm coral reefs where Nassau Grouper live.
To protect the grouper a number of measures must be taken to manage the population:
- Establish Marine Protected Areas (MPA's) where the fishing of grouper is illegal.
- Establish a closed season of three months when grouper can be harvested.
- Establish minimum harvestable size limit and enforce the minimum legal size of 3 pounds.
- Protect spawning and aggregation sites -- fishing at these sites have made grouper susceptible to overfishing.
- Encourage fisherman to catch other species of fish so that we have alternative species of fish to help support our needs.
By protecting grouper in these ways, fishermen will gain and the grouper population will grow. Eventually, our fishermen will make a more reliable income at less risk to themselves taking paying customers to view these natural phenomena than they ever took out by fishing. A population that is close to its final collapse is salvageable but still numerous. There will certainly be enough fish in it for others to argue that it is not yet in danger. By the time it is obviously in trouble, the decline in numbers will be irreversible.
Conch is an important part of the marine food chain. Juvenile conch are eaten by crawfish, crabs, hermit crabs, sea snails, hogfish and queen triggerfish. Large conchs are eaten by sea turtles, octopus, stingrays and leopard rays.
Queen Conch has been a staple food in the diet of Bahamians for hundreds of years as well as an important fishery resource. Conch is a food product with status as a "cultural symbol." Popular food dishes include cracked conch, conch fritters, conch chowder, conch salad and scorched conch. In the year 2000, over 250,000 pounds of conch were exported at a value of almost one million Bahamian dollars.
The harvesting and possession of conch with a shell that does not possess a well-formed lip is illegal. However, seventy-five percent of all conch shells discarded in local shell piles are under-sized. Various researchers have concluded that Queen Conch are locally depleted in The Bahamas and many officials are very concerned about the future of conch. Internationally, conch is listed in Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as "threatened" and will soon move to the "endangered" status if something isn't done to protect this important member of the marine food web.
Whereas grouper need to be protected in "time", Queen Conch need to be protected in "space." In Marine Protected Areas, if conch is protected from all hunting, the breeding success of those animals will spread to nearby areas. Secondly, fishermen need to respect the legal minimum size-limit for collecting conch in order to allow the mature conch to breed. It takes a conch until it is nearly three years old to reach its full shell size and this is when it begins to grow the broad lip on the shell. The broad lip is a sign that the conch will soon reach maturity. Finally, a closed season in the summer months would protect conch during the other months when they normally spawn. Each one these conservation efforts is not enough on its own. With all of them enforced by our community, they may secure the future of conch in the Bahamas for all people to enjoy.
In nature, sea turtles face a host of life and death obstacles to their survival. Predators such as raccoons, crabs and ants raid eggs and hatchlings still in the nest. Once they emerge, hatchlings make bite-sized meals for birds, crabs and a host of predators in the ocean. After reaching adulthood, sea turtles are relatively immune to predation, except for the occasional shark attack. These natural threats, however, are not the reasons sea turtle populations have plummeted toward extinction. To understand what really threatens sea turtle survival, we must look at the actions of humans.
Thousands of sea turtles die from eating or becoming entangled in non-degradable debris each year, including packing bands, balloons, pellets, bottles, vinyl films, tar balls, and styrofoam. Trash, particularly plastic bags thrown overboard from boats or dumped near beaches and swept out to sea, is eaten by turtles and becomes a deadly meal. Leatherbacks especially, cannot distinguish between floating jellyfish - a main component of their diet - and floating plastic bags.
Nesting turtles once had no trouble finding a quiet, dark beach on which to nest, but now they must compete with tourists, businesses and coastal residents for use of the beach. Lights from these developments discourage females from nesting and cause hatchlings to become disoriented and wander inland, where they often die of dehydration or predation. Coastal armoring - such as sea walls, rock revetments and sandbags that are installed in an attempt to protect beachfront property from erosion - often block female turtles from reaching suitable nesting habitat and accelerate erosion down the beach.
Pollution can have serious impacts on both sea turtles and the food they eat. When pollution kills aquatic plant and animal life, it also takes away the food sea turtles eat. Oil spills, urban runoff of chemicals, fertilizers and petroleum all contribute to water pollution.
To truly protect sea turtles around the world, many different countries and cultures must cooperate and share responsibility. International laws and agreements, research, and the work of dedicated organizations and individuals each must play a part. In the United States, all species of sea turtles are protected by the Endangered Species Act, recognizing the need to conserve these wildlife based on their low population numbers.
In the Bahamas the Department of Fisheries has jurisdiction over sea turtles. Bahamian law makes it illegal to harm, harass or kill any sea turtles, hatchlings or their eggs on any beach. Though the green turtle is listed internationally as "endangered" and the loggerhead as "threatened," these turtles are allowed to be caught in the Bahamas during a closed season from April 1st to July 31st. The question we must ask is clear: if other countries recognize these species are in danger of dying out, should fishermen in the Bahamas hunt for some other type of animals until sea turtle populations recover?
The threats facing sea turtles are numerous and, for the most part, humans are the problem. There is still time for us to make a difference. Some immediate goals for protecting sea turtles include:
- Enforce our national laws that protect sea turtles.
- Protect nesting beaches by establishing parks and refuges or through regulations combined with public education initiatives.
- Eliminate disturbances at nesting beaches by decreasing artificial lighting, halting beach armoring, regulating beach nourishment and limiting the impacts of people on the beach.
- Enforce national and international laws to minimize the dumping of pollutants and solid waste into the ocean and nearshore waters.
- Increase public awareness and community participation in sea turtle conservation through education.
To learn more about local efforts to protect marine life in the Bahamas, go to www.breef.org or visit www.coastalawareness.org