No protection for Grouper four years since action plan

An action plan outlining measures costing €70,000 to protect the grouper was drawn up in 2011 and issued for public consultation in May 2012.

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) is showing no urgency to implement a plan proposed in 2012 to save the dusky grouper, a gentle giant of the sea targeted by many artisanal and sport-fishing activities.

An action plan outlining measures costing €70,000 to protect the grouper was drawn up in 2011 and issued for public consultation in May 2012.

Three years later “the document is still pending discussions”, a MEPA spokesperson told MaltaToday. Moreover according to the same spokesperson “the issue is now being addressed in a more holistic approach, prioritising species requiring action plans”.

But according to marine biologist and university lecturer Alan Deidun, MEPA cannot afford to lose more time to implement the measures proposed in the plan. 

“The poaching within local waters of different sizes of dusky grouper goes on unabated, especially at night during the summer months, even through the joint use of Scuba diving and harpoons, despite this being forbidden at EU level,” he said. 

Deidun said that under-sized groupers were frequently offered at restaurants and said the delay in protecting the fish was  “symptomatic of the sluggish pace at which coastal and marine conservation proceeds in this country”.

He noted that by MEPA’s own admission, the dusky grouper is ‘particularly at risk locally’.

The species is also listed in a raft of legislation annexes, such as Annex III of the SAP-BD Protocol of the Barcelona Convention, which make it incumbent on signatory countries including Malta to regulate the exploitation of the dusky grouper and other species listed in them.

The fish can live up to 50 years and can reach a weight of 35kg, living in rocky coastal areas of the Mediterranean Sea.

But its unique vulnerability is a result of the biological characteristics of the slow growing creature, which inverts sex when it reaches 12 years of age. In 2006, groupers were the fifth most caught species of local fish.

By MEPA’s own admission, the groupers is particularly at risk locally, unless the population is directly protected by some forms of regulations like closed seasons, moratoriums, marine protected areas or other forms of fishing restrictions.

The action plan is a three-year programme to set up four marine areas of special interest and study further these potential sites for grouper conservation.

One of the measures is a certification scheme for restaurants sourced by sustainable fishing practices, to encourage restaurants to buy unharpooned and correctly-sized specimens. The list will be published and the scheme will be regulated through a certification process.

The grouper is already included in the Flora, Fauna and Natural Habitats Protection Regulations of 2006, which comprises animals and plants of national interest and whose exploitation may be subject to management measures.

Until a few years ago, groupers were in dramatic decline around the Mediterranean. Marine reserves slowed down the decline, and they can now be encountered in reasonably high densities, thanks also to moratoria and the ban on spear fishing for groupers.

However, according to the 2011 report the situation in Malta has remained much the same, since no such moratoria exist and encounters with groupers are still very sporadic and rare.

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