Conservation Groups Threaten to Sue Against Trump Administration

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Designated an endangered species, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Trump administration has failed to designate critical habitat for the Nassau grouper.

No living being in this country is safe from the threats the Trump administration poses. The fish called Nassau grouper are not an exception. Conservation groups recently threatened to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration for not protecting the Nassau grouper habitat, which faces threats from climate change impacts and pollution.

Three conservation groups (Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, and Miami Waterkeeper) sent a letter to the Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration which serves as a 60-day notice of intent to sue. The letter states that the National Marine Fisheries Service “has failed to designate critical habitat for Nassau grouper.” The failure to designate critical habitat “deprives the grouper important protections and puts it at further risk of extinction,” according to the letter.

The federal government failed to designate the Nassau grouper's habitat critical

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are prohibited from authorizing activities that will harm or destroy the critical habit of a listed species. In 2014, the Service proposed listing the Nassau grouper as threatened, and in 2016, the Service finalized the listing. The Service did not designate the critical habit then but instead stated that critical habitat would be designated later in a rule. The Service has not yet issued a final critical habitat determination, which the letter sent by the conservation groups characterizes as violating the Endangered Species Act.

Populations were twice as likely to improve for species when they had a critical habitat designation for two years or more in the late 1990s, and less than half as likely to decline in the early 1990s. Species were less likely to be declining when they had dedicated recovery plans for two years or more.

The threats facing the Nassau grouper

The Nassau grouper, a predatory fish living on coral reefs, was once one of the most common groupers in the U.S. but overfishing contributed to a 60 percent decline of the fish species. Native to South Florida and the Caribbean, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, poor water quality, and increased sedimentation from land development practices threaten coral and macroalgae that are important to the grouper. Although considered to be a reef fish, the Nassau grouper go through transitions during their life stages. As larvae they are planktonic but as juveniles, they live in near-shore shallow waters in macroalgal and seagrass habitats. They go deeper as they grow and mainly wind up in reef habitat.

Overfishing is one of the biggest threats facing the species. One of the behaviors of the Nassau grouper makes them a target for people fishing. They practice what is called dense spawning aggregations, meaning all of the groupers from several square miles will collect in a single place. It is easy to predict where Nassau groupers will be because they tend to use the same places to spawn every year. Historical harvest and fishing at places where they spawn are identified as high-risk threats to the Nassau groupers.

Nassau groupers and other predators keep coral reefs healthy as coral reefs with predators like the groupers are healthier than reefs lacking predators. Coral reefs are “critically important ecosystems for coastal communities,” the World Resources Institute states. Caribbean coral reefs contain over 60 species of coral and 1,500 species of fish. They are part of the Caribbean tourism industry, which the WRI calls the “region’s most important economic sector.”

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