Final Marine Critical Habitat Issued for Threatened Nassau Grouper
Rule Safeguards Coral Reefs Near Florida, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— The National Marine Fisheries Service announced critical habitat designations today for the threatened Nassau grouper. The agency’s final rule protects more than 900 square miles in the western North Atlantic Ocean. The fish’s nearshore ocean habitat faces threats from pollution, coastal development and climate change harms like ocean warming and acidification.
“Nassau groupers can’t survive if we don’t protect their habitat, and I’m thrilled their ocean home is getting help,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Climate change and pollution are pushing the ocean beyond what it can take, and the Nassau grouper is a casualty. These fish help keep our ocean ecosystems healthy and promote the growth of corals and seagrass, so protecting them will have a positive ripple effect.”
Today’s designations follow a 2020 lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Miami Waterkeeper. The Nassau grouper population has declined by 60% in recent years, largely because of overfishing. The fish used to be one of the most common groupers in the United States. In 2016 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed the grouper as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in response to a WildEarth Guardians scientific petition.
Nassau groupers reproduce only in big groups called spawning aggregations, consisting of hundreds, thousands or — historically — tens of thousands of fish that simultaneously return to the same locations for decades. The federal critical habitat designations will protect those marine spawning sites, as well as coral reef systems where the grouper’s larvae settle and grow, and areas with rock and old coral structures that young groupers use for protection as they mature.
Species with federally protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to recover as species without it. The Endangered Species Act prohibits federal agencies from authorizing activities that would destroy or harm a listed species’ critical habitat.
“This is a positive and necessary step forward for the species. Nassau groupers are keystone species, so their presence is often linked to a healthy coral reef ecosystem,” said Dr. Rachel Silverstein, waterkeeper and executive director of Miami Waterkeeper. “Therefore, defining the Nassau grouper’s critical habitat doesn’t just safeguard that species, it offers protection to countless other species that inhabit coral reefs.”
The Nassau grouper is native to South Florida and the Caribbean, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Poor water quality and increased sedimentation due to land-development practices threaten both coral and macroalgae that are important resources to the grouper throughout its life stages. Coral reefs are also acutely threatened by climate change impacts such as sea-level rise and ocean acidification.
Designated critical habitat areas in Florida include Biscayne Bay and Atlantic waters near Key Largo, Marathon, Big Pine Key to Geiger Key, and Key West. Waters in the Gulf of Mexico near New Ground Shoal, Halfmoon Shoal and spawning areas off the Dry Tortugas are included.
Other areas with spawning aggregations are west of Puerto Rico and south of St. Thomas. Nearshore waters around St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John and Navassa Island are also included. The critical habitat includes nearshore waters on the eastern coast and southwestern coast of Puerto Rico, plus Desecheo Island, Isla de Mona, Vieques Island and Isla De Culebra in Puerto Rico.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Miami Waterkeeper is a South Florida-based nonprofit:
Our mission is to protect South Florida’s watershed through citizen engagement and community action, ensuring swimmable, drinkable, fishable, water for all.