The Grouper and Wrasse Specialist Group in the current triennium has 40 members from almost 20 countries. Given how little is known of most species that we cover, the growing threats that they face, especially from exploitation, and the general lack of attention being paid to their management and conservation of reef species in general, our work around research, red list assessments, species management plans, education and on-the-ground conservation continues to be essential to ensure the long-term persistence of many populations.
The Grouper and Wrasse Specialist Group was established in 1998 because of growing conservation concerns for vulnerable species in these two teleost families. Groupers (Serranidae and Epinephelidae) and Wrasses (Labridae) are amongst the most highly valued of all reef-associated fishes and are being increasingly targeted globally for human consumption in both domestic and, increasingly international, trade for food and as marine ornamentals. As one example, a burgeoning trade in live reef food fish in SE Asia has placed particularly heavy pressure on populations of several favoured species, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines (see publication). Traditional fisheries for grouper, especially those that are developing export markets, have reached, or threaten to reach, levels of intensity that are unsustainable for this vulnerable group of fishes. This is a threat not only to the species but also to food security and the livelihoods that healthy grouper populations support.
Groupers and wrasses are largely dependent on rocky and coral reefs. Many are long-lived and slow-growing. Despite the fact that most species produce large numbers of eggs each year, rates of population growth are slow and they can only withstand light levels of fishing pressure. Their high value, however, makes them a particularly appealing target. Fishing is not only directed towards adults, juveniles are also mariculture. Indeed, in some areas millions of juveniles are targetted annually to supply the mariculture industry even for species that can be produced by hatchery breeding because wild capture is sometimes more economical.
Many the larger species of groupers and wrasses aggregate to spawn for short periods and at specific locations each year. The practice of targeting spawning aggregations, both in the western tropical Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific, is considered to be a particular threat because such aggregations evidently represent all annual reproductive activity. These aggregations are vulnerable bottlenecks in the life history of many species and need to be protected or managed.
The aim of establishing this Specialist Group was to bring together a small, but active, group of specialists, spanning biology, fisheries management, socio-economics and conservation, to focus on issues related to these highly valued and vulnerable species and advance protective agendas. For many, there are few data on their biology, fishery or conservation status. We need to identify what is known, as well as what we need to know and how we might gather such information, to assess current status and exploitation patterns. Actions include a focus of attention on vulnerable life history stages, such as spawning aggregations or nursery areas, and promotion of marine reserves to protect spawning biomass and critical habitats. Focused campaigns are being developed for the most vulnerable species, such as the Humphead (= Napoleon) wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus, of the Indo-Pacific.