(Editor’s Note: Alison Green, senior marine biologist at The Nature Conservancy, is spending the next two weeks diving and exploring Palmyra Atoll as part of the first marine assessment of the atoll. Follow her posts from Palmyra on Cool Green Science…and learn more about the expedition.)
Large groupers (like the one above) are very susceptible to fishing pressure.
Along with sharks and other large reef fishes (particularly bumphead parrotfish and humphead wrasse), large groupers are often the first to disappear when reefs are fished. In fact, these species are so vulnerable to overfishing that they disappear even when fishing pressure is light.
In recent years large groupers, parrotfishes and wrasses have also been targeted by the live reef food fish trade, which has decimated their populations throughout much of Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. Large groupers are particularly vulnerable to overexploitation because they aggregate to breed (in groups of hundreds or thousands), so it is possible to catch all or most of the population at one time.
Consequently, it is a rare treat to see large groupers these days, and when you do, you usually only get a brief glimpse of them before they race away and hide.
So imagine my surprise today when I saw three camouflage groupers (Epinephelus polyphekadion), 40cm to 50cm (16 to 20 inches) long, and completely unafraid of me. When I first saw them I froze, expecting them to race for cover at high speed. Instead, one of them swam slowly towards me until it was just inches away from my mask staring me straight in the eye as if to say: “Yes, what do you want?”
It was a wonderful experience and will be one of my most treasured memories of Palmyra, a place where large groupers are not afraid of people.
(Image: Camouflague grouper, Palmyra. Credit: Jim Maragos, USFWS.)