Grouper controversy

The tragedy of the Queensland Grouper

by Roger Grace

The giant Queensland grouper of the Hen and Chicken Islands is dead and gone. Bloody shame. At least some of its pride has been salvaged by the scientists at the National Museum in Wellington where its carcass was sent for scientific study, but nothing will bring back the magnificence of this huge and ancient animal. These days it is rather like shooting a giant panda, or a blue whale, just ‘because it is there’.

In January 2001 at the National Spearfishing Championships at the Hen and Chicken Islands off Northland, veteran spearfisherman Bob Rosemergy was highly privileged to find a huge Queensland grouper, an extremely unusual species in New Zealand waters. They are widespread, though nowhere common, in many tropical seas. Despite the ineligibility of this species in the spearfishing contest, Bob nevertheless chose to spear the enormous fish, which weighed in at 115 kilograms.

Although he did nothing illegal, I’m sure Bob has punished himself at length over this incident, and there is little point in further chastising him for this gross and unfortunate mistake. What can we learn from this tragedy? We must learn something from it for the sake of the species, for the oceans, and for the future of spearfishing in New Zealand. The image of spearfishing as a sport has been seriously dented by this event.

There was a moment just before Bob pulled the trigger, when for a split second he had a choice. That choice was to let this huge animal pass and to just marvel at its magnificence, or to pull the trigger and terminate its 100-year-plus life. What was it that influenced Bob in this decision?

The animal was not on the list of allowed species for the spearfishing contest he was competing in, so there was an obvious disincentive there. But it was not sufficient. Bob is a long-time spearo with an impressive amount of experience. One would have thought he could have kept his trigger finger under better control. I would be interested to hear Bob’s own words to describe what happened in those few moments before he drained the life from probably the biggest grouper ever seen underwater in this country. Perhaps he may explain it to us one day in the pages of this magazine.

Bob apparently had time to identify the fish and decide whether or not to spear it, as he did at least two dives on the animal. I have heard that he mistook it for a huge hapuku. Seems strange that Bob, with his long experience of spearfishing and having speared hapuku in the past, could have made such a mistake in identification. Even if he thought it was a hapuku, there are many who would argue that such a large example should not have been shot. Hapuku that big are extremely rare these days, and within diving depths the species is virtually extinct.

For comparison, spotted black grouper are totally protected in New Zealand, and I would think that fact would be firmly entrenched in Bob’s mind. If his fish had been of that species, I doubt Bob would have shot it.

The Queensland grouper would have been protected at the Poor Knights Marine Reserve. It would also have been safe had it stayed at home in the Marine Park off Queensland.

We are told that Queensland grouper have been seen or caught in New Zealand before. One was seen at the Poor Knights about six years ago, and hung around for several weeks before disappearing. They occasionally arrive here either by swimming as adults and getting ‘lost’ down this way from more tropical climates, or they may turn up occasionally as larvae drifting to our shores on ocean currents. However they get here, it is not likely they breed here – the waters are probably too cold. But with global warming happening, perhaps we may see a gradual increase in sightings of Queensland grouper.

Maybe one thing we could do to help prevent such a tragedy in future is to offer legal protection to Queensland grouper in New Zealand. If Queensland grouper were legally protected, would this have been sufficient to encourage Bob to have made a different decision that day on the bottom at the Hen and Chickens? I believe so. The grouper might have swum away unharmed, and Bob could have a glorious memory to savour, instead of nagging guilt, for the rest of his days.

There are at least two options for protection of Queensland grouper here in New Zealand. One would be a regulation under the Fisheries Act, prohibiting taking of the species throughout New Zealand’s EEZ. Another option would be protection under the Wildlife Act. Although intended to cover land animals and marine mammals, fishes and other marine organisms can be protected provided they are defined as ‘animals’ under the Wildlife Act. I believe this is how black coral, red coral and spotted black grouper are currently protected.

Grouper and grouper-like fishes are in a sorry state around the world because of over-fishing. Their biology and behaviour means they are extremely vulnerable to fishing pressure. Most grouper are long-lived, territorial reef fish, with no natural predators. They have a strong social structure with the large males keeping a ‘harem’ of smaller females. Their breeding biology is geared to a very slow replacement rate, so fishing can wipe them out very quickly from an area.

Individual large grouper have amazing potential for interactions with divers. A classic example would be Boris on the President Coolidge wreck in Vanuatu. Boris has been delighting divers there for over 25 years. Other examples are potato cod at the Cod Hole on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and spotted black grouper such as Groppy, Jinx, Mr G and Scar-face at the Kermadec Islands.

Spearfishing in New Zealand has come a long way since the days I was involved in the sport in the 1960s. I lost interest when the rules changed to an emphasis on spearing as many different species as possible, thus putting a lot of pressure on reef fish, which no self-respecting spearo wanted to shoot for sport. I campaigned against reef fish in competitions, and gradually the rules evolved to a much more satisfactory system today. There is a very limited list of allowable species in modern competitions – species which are both a challenge to the spearo, and are regarded as able to sustain the amount of fishing effort imposed by a spearfishing contest in a limited area.

I generally have a lot of faith in top-level modern spearos, and their degree of skill is quite amazing. Their philosophy is much more conservation-oriented than that of spearos in the old days, if they had a philosophy. This is what makes Bob’s decision so hard to understand. Not only has he played an active part in the evolution of spearfishing as a sport, but as Chairman of Freediving New Zealand, a committee of New Zealand Underwater, he is in an administrative position to strongly influence the philosophical direction of spearfishing in this country.

Perhaps, Bob, it is time to hang up your speargun and reflect on life. I hung up mine many years ago. In fact, the best use I have found for the spear shaft is to heat it up in a fire and use it to melt holes in the bottom of cut-down plastic milk bottles, which I use as pots for growing native trees for re-vegetation projects!

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