Assessing effectiveness of the seasonal closure of the Moonfish Bank of the Saba Bank for two species of concern, the Red Hind and the Queen Triggerfish: the first five years

Based on traditional knowledge of the Saban fishermen, a spawning aggregation area (SPAG) for the Red Hind (Epinephelus guttatus) and the Queen Triggerfish (Balistes vetula) has long been known at the northeast end of the Saba Bank, locally known as the Moonfish Bank. SPAG’s are very vulnerable to overfishing because these fish aggregations are predictable in space and time. Both are species of special concern throughout the wider Caribbean, due to overfishing. In 2013 a 5-year seasonal closure was arranged that prohibited fishing the Moonfish Bank from the 1st of December to 28th of February, within which, according to local knowledge, mass spawning takes place. The closure ended in February 2018. In this report we provide a preliminary evaluation of the effect of this 5-year seasonal closure on Red Hind and Queen Triggerfish populations of the Saba Bank based on the monitoring of fishes landed in the Saba Port in those 5 years, throughout the year. For both focal species we examined annual differences in the length-frequency distributions and Landings Per Trip (LPT; number of fish landed per fishing trip) from bycatches in both shallow (~30 m) lobster traps and deep (~100 m) snapper trap fisheries, using port landing data from 2011, which is prior to implementation of the closure measure in 2013, until September 2018. 

Our preliminary assessment by means of Generalized Linear Model (GLM) analysis gives no indication of any improvement in LPT or mean size caught for either of the two species examined since the seasonal closure was initiated in 2013. Results even suggest a small but significant decrease in the size of Red Hinds caught as by catch in the lobster pot fishery. This means that, based on the port sampling method used, no significant positive effect on the Red Hind and Queen Triggerfish populations of the 5-year closure can yet be demonstrated. There are many possible explanations for this result, which are presented in the discussion. In particular, there is reason to believe that the current closure area may not be large enough to properly protect the Moonfish Bank SPAG and that there likely are other SPAG’s on the Saba Bank that may also need protection. Therefore, further fisheries-independent research on these and other matters is needed on which basis it may be possible to improve protection so that positive evidence of the effectiveness of the closure may be documented in the future. 

Based on fisheries-independent visual diver surveys in the shallow (~ 20m depth) coral reef zone of the Saba Bank edges in 2011, 2013 and 2015, the current population status of our focal species (in that limited habitat zone of the Bank) is as follows: Red Hinds averaged 118.7 ± 53.5 (ind. ha-1) with a mean size of about 24 cm, while Queen Triggerfish averaged 56.0 ± 37.6 (ind. ha-1) with a median size of about 29 cm (data of 2011, 2013 and 2015 combined). For both focal species, the median size landed in the fishery (Red Hind: about 31 or 33 cm depending on the type of fishery pots; Queen Triggerfish: 34 cm) was considerably larger than the mean size of the population on the reef based on surveys along the available coral reef transects. This is generally to be expected as fishing gears and fisheries typically select for larger individuals. We cautiously suggest that compared to many other areas in the Caribbean (e.g. Bonaire and Curaçao) where the Red Hind and the Queen Triggerfish once were common but now have disappeared, the populations of both these species living in the shallow coral reefs of the Saba Bank still seem relatively healthy in terms of both population density and size-structure. 

Based on experiences elsewhere in the region, there is no question that protection of spawning aggregations is a basic need for sustainable management and fishery production in mass-spawning species. Therefore, our main management recommendation is that the closure should continue. However, to reliably asses the effect of seasonal closure and to further improve protection of the spawning grounds for these species, more intensive and consistent data is needed from port sampling which should also (minimally) include data on sex and maturity of the landed fish, even though such data fall outside the typical scope of routine fisheries port sampling. Most critically, directed fisheries-independent research will be needed to answer several critical questions regarding stock status and when and where spawning aggregations are actually taking place, to improve the effectiveness of seasonal closures of spawning areas of Red Hind and Queen Triggerfish on the Saba Bank.

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