Environment minister signs order protecting two keystone species of grouper

Society for the Protection of Nature welcomes total ban on fishing Goldblotch grouper, laments decision to grant only temporary, partial protection to endangered dusky grouper

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Dusty grouper. (Dr Shevy Rothman)
Dusty grouper. (Dr Shevy Rothman)

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel signed an amendment to the law Monday to permanently add the Goldblotch grouper fish to the country’s list of protected marine species and to add the dusky grouper temporarily, for a year.

Commercial fishermen who catch dusky groupers “without intention” in their nets will be permitted to sell them for food, but sports fishermen will be banned from using underwater rifles to kill them.

When she made the decision in February, Gamliel said that the addition of the two species would allow for a “balance between protecting biodiversity and ecosystems in the Mediterranean Sea and ensuring that the livelihood of commercial fishermen is not harmed.”

A statement issued Monday by the Environmental Protection Ministry said, “as predators, the Goldblotch grouper and the dusky grouper [known in Hebrew as ‘locus’] are two key species of high ecological importance, which maintain the ecological balance in the sea by regulating the population of fish they prey on.”

It added that they also help to control populations of invasive fish species that feed on algae on underwater rocks, depriving local species of food and shelter.

Goldblotch grouper. (Dr Shevy Rothman)

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which petitioned the High Court twice to have the dusky grouper protected, welcomed the minister’s decision on the Goldblotch grouper, but warned that the very partial steps to protect the dusky grouper would not enable its populations to recover.

In November, the Groupers and Wrasses Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature wrote to Gamliel, asking for full protection for both species, Epinephelus costae and Epinephelus marginatus.

Both, it said, needed to be “totally protected for at least ten years,” in line with the IUCN’s recommendations.

The dusky grouper has been assessed as vulnerable globally, and endangered in the Mediterranean. “There is no doubt that its populations have been reduced substantially in comparison to historic numbers,” the letter said. The Goldblotch grouper was listed as data deficient. The letter went on, “in this case, a signal of concern but with insufficient data to complete a species assessment according to IUCN’s strict metrics.” Due to their similar traits and behavior, however, they were likely to have a similar conservation status to their dusky cousins, the group said.

“Groupers are among the more sensitive species to fishing, due to their biology as well as their desirability (value and taste). Time and time again and species after species, we have seen that their populations are being negatively impacted when they are exploited (even at low levels) in the absence of effective management.”

Israel has earmarked just three percent of its territorial waters as marine reserves, the letter said — far beneath the 30% target of the Convention on Biodiversity.

The SPNI said, “It is important to note that fishing is the most significant cause of damage to natural marine systems, both in the oceans and in the Mediterranean Sea.”

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