By Paul Tzimoulis
Most marine conservation reports bring us depressing news; generally some sort of horror story about the wanton destruction of a reef or animal species. Here, for a change, is some good news about how a precious natural resource can be saved. Before giving you the good news, permit me to set the stage with a brief historical overview.
When I first started diving Florida waters in the late 1950s, Jewfish were everywhere. This grouper, Epinephelus itajara, was king of the reef; a giant that could grow to seven feet long and weigh up to 800 pounds. Needless to say, it soon became a popular trophy fish among spearfishermen.
During the 1960s, there were many hero stories and photos of divers spearing these giant fish. And, as the technology of spearfishing improved, with powerheads and bigger guns, more and more Jewfish became trophies.
By the 1970s, Jewfish were becoming scarce in Florida waters. Recreational divers seldom, if ever, encountered one. At the sight of a diver, the few that survived would flee to the deep or hide in the darkest and farthest recesses of reef caves. This shortage, in turn, created a new trend.
Recreational divers began bypassing Florida waters, traveling instead to Caribbean islands where Jewfish could still be seen, admired and photographed. There were many stories of tame Jewfish in the British Virgin Islands, The Bahamas, Cayman Islands and so on. But once again, spearfishing technology, coupled with the lack of protective laws, formed a lethal union that managed to wipe out most of the Caribbean Islands' Jewfish. They are gone.
Then in 1990, a wonderful thing happened. Florida State Marine Fisheries Commission designated the Jewfish a protected species. The state passed a law that prohibited the harvest of Jewfish in state waters, including possession, landing, purchase or sale of Jewfish meat. Apprehension of violators could result in severe penalties.
This past summer I had an opportunity to once again travel and dive Florida waters, and I very quickly discovered the Jewfish were back! Everywhere I went, there were reports of Jewfish. You can find them on at least three wrecks off Key West, a wreck off Marathon, another wreck off Islamorada and two or three spots off Key Largo. What's more, these Jewfish appear less afraid of divers than their predecessors. Mostly young, weighing 60 to 250 pounds, they will eventually grow into giants. The same miracle is happening all along the west coast of Florida, as well as Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and most of Florida's east coast.
If I were to make a prediction about the future of recreational diving, I would have to say the Jewfish may become Florida's next major U/W attraction. A living, happy Jewfish can be worth a whole lot more to Florida's economy than the sale of its carcass. And, just maybe, other Caribbean island nations will follow Florida's conservation example and provide protection for the beloved Jewfish.
Note: You can be part of this new conservation trend by sending us stories and reports about Jewfish recently encountered in Florida. Write to: The Editor, Skin Diver, 6420 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90048, e-mail: email@example.com
or fax (213) 782-2121.