Organizations Ask for Nassau Grouper Fish to Receive Protected Habitat

Advocacy organizations filed a complaint in the District of Columbia against government agencies on Monday alleging that they are not taking adequate steps to protect the Nassau grouper. They alleged the National Marine Fisheries Service did not meet deadlines to designate a critical habitat for the fish, which is required when a species is listed as threatened as the Nassau grouper has been since 2016.

Nassau groupers are, according to the complaint, “one of the largest coral reef fish, (which) form spawning aggregations that make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing.” The zebra-colored Nassau groupers are able to live at least 29 years and have allegedly shown an ability to recognize specific divers. The fish have lost habitat space due to human activities. In the United States, the fish reside in coastal areas near Southern Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.

The organizations seeking declaratory and injunctive relief include the Center for Biological Diversity, Wildearth Guardians, and Miami Waterkeeper. They alleged that, along with the National Marine Fisheries Service, Wilbur Ross, secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce and Chris Oliver, Assistant Administrator for Fisheries at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration are at fault for the delays.

“The Defendants’ ongoing failure to designate critical habitat for Nassau groupers deprives these animals of protections to which they are legally entitled and leaves them at increased risk of injury and death in their most important habitat areas,” the plaintiffs said.

The fish are protected by the Endangered Species Act because conditions, including “global warming, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and loss of structural habitat in coral reef ecosystems” are threatening the species’ habitats. The designation of a habitat by the National Marine Fisheries Service would protect important habitat areas from destruction due to federal activities. The plaintiffs claimed that designation of a critical habitat makes a species twice as likely to recover than species without the designation.

Monday’s complaint stated, “the relief sought herein—an order compelling the Defendants to designate critical habitat—would redress these injuries by protecting the Nassau grouper’s habitat before it can be further degraded or destroyed, thereby protecting the grouper from extinction. This will allow the Conservation Organizations and their members to continue pursuing their educational, scientific, recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual interests in the grouper and its habitats.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Catherine Cain Ware Kilduff and Jaclyn Lopez with the Center for Biological Diversity.