Overharvests in Florida? Please Consider Some Truths
02 Apr, 2009
Originally posted: 2009
Taking Exception to Andrew Rhyne et al.
By Forrest Young
The Rhyne et al paper that spawned the New York Times article is a publication that we take exception to, as it is full of hyperbole and inaccurate claims that really don’t have any place in peer-reviewed publication. The title itself would lead one to believe our fishery is on the precipice, due largely to activities of marine life fishermen and the curio trade. The real culprit to the demise of the coral reef that we knew in our youth is nutrient loading and diminished water quality due to lack of appropriate wastewater treatment and many other of man’s destructive activities that take place in the name of development.
It never ceases to amaze me that despite the loss of all the heavy stands of live corals, on just about every bank reef off the Florida Keys, the animal assemblage that remains is just as abundant and just as productive as it ever was. There are a few species that have been impacted minimally, but overall, the vast majority of fish species and invertebrates have “made the jump” to a rock and gorgonian reef.
A number of species such as grunts, snappers, and goatfishes in particular are actually more abundant now than before due to the nutrients that are injected into the system. Nowhere in the Caribbean do you have the sheer numbers of these species that we have here.
Further, if the authors Rhyne et al, really knew what they were talking about, they would realize that of the top 15 grazers listed on table 2 of their paper, none of them really is “reef dwelling species”. The top grazing invertebrate in total numbers listed by Rhyne et al, is actually not a marine life species at all, it is a curio species that is found here in next to limitless numbers. Moreover, while I personally do not support the curio trade for number of reasons, I am hard pressed to find a problem with harvesting a species that is extremely abundant and grazes on diatom and algae growth on sand. I do agree that one of the regulatory agencies might be well advised to take a look at the standing stocks and consider placing some sensible limits on this due to the sheer numbers of organisms involved. We have already suggested that to FWC and I think they are planning precisely that.
Is the reef going to collapse as a result it? I don’t think so.
In fact if you look closely at table 2, a significant majority of the species that appear to be of concern are harvested solely by the curio trade and not a one of them are reef dwelling species. and while the entire ecosystem is indeed connected, claiming imminent collapse of the reef system is entirely and wholly irresponsible.
The Florida Wildlife Commission invited 8-10 members of the marine life fishery (including yours truly) and curio trade to participate in the dozen or so scoping meetings in 2006-08 along with representatives from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, an ngo REEF and the Florida Marine Patrol. The only significant aspect about the curio trade participation was a total lack of any participation of any kind in the conservation/regulations process. FWC is to be congratulated for being ahead of the curve where this fishery in concerned and we have found them to be sensible, candid, open to reasonable suggestions and firm when the answer to the fishermen needs to be “no”. I have nothing but respect for the FWC staff in this regard. You will also note significantly that the FWC is not in concurrence with Rhyne’s conclusions.
The balance of the grazers that Rhyne claimed were harvested to the detriment of the reef are really found on tidal flats near shore, grass beds near shore and other inshore hard bottom habitats. These include but are not limited to turbo snails, blue-legged hermit crabs, emerald (small green clinging crabs) crabs, top snails, star snails and pin cushion urchins. I’ve done this work for almost 40 years and I have yet to find any of the “reef collapse grazers” in harvestable numbers anywhere near a coral reef. With Florida’s immense expanse of inshore coastline where these grazing animals actually live, it is my firm belief that the small amount of pressure that we place on the resource, is more than compensated for by annual recruitment.
While the current set of marine life rules in Florida is not perfect, it remains the most comprehensively managed fishery in the country if not the entire world. With over 2200 miles of coastline, we have a tremendous capacity for recruitment, and the primary limitation to recruitment here is available healthy habitat. While the Rhyne paper is correct in stating that we do not know how much pressure these various taxa can safely withstand, the implication that collapse is imminent is disingenuous at best.
The world we currently live in is one where the mere whisper of inappropriate or harmful activity risks having the full weight of the government put to bear, often without full knowledge of the entire picture, and very recently without proper scientific justification, so although this paper totally inaccurate and literally dead wrong, it still brought the attention of the New York Times and thus my reaction to vigorously defend our business and ethical collecting practices.
I can unequivocally state, that the marine life fishery in Florida, and the one is Australia for that matter, are the most ethically constrained fisheries in the world. We have asked the State of Florida to regulate us back in 1986-89, well before there was any issue with the resource, to implement size limits, bag limits and to develop a reporting program that keeps track of industry trends as they affect marine life issues. Each and every time we have seen a tiny reduction in any species, be it condylactus anemones, turbo snails, blue legged hermit crabs, Ricordea polyps, etc. etc, the fishery itself has requested that FWC implement bag and or size limits so that resource would not be in jeopardy.
After suggesting these bag and daily limits I and a few of our responsible members have personally endured threats, intimidation and harassment in the form of spurious reports to the Marine Patrol (that we were engaging in all manner of impropriety), from a very few individuals who simply could not come into compliance with regulations of any kind. I do not take it kindly to have it inferred by anyone that our legitimate and ethical business activity has led to, or will lead to the collapse of the reef system.
Thanks to you all for listening, I will hope that if the subject comes up you all will bring some of the truth into that discussion.
Forrest A. Young
Shrouding Opinion in Science by Craig A. Watson