The damage fishermen don’t see

One of the things I have done since I’ve been here is photograph animals that have been injured. It’s a morbid curiosity, I guess. It cuts me to the quick when I see an injured animal on the reef. It cuts even deeper when I see wounds caused by fishing or spearing.

I’ve seen porkfish and angelfish that look like they’ve been nicked by spears. I’ve seen a green moray on the Benwood dragging around a lead weight on a leader. I can’t count the number of hooks I’ve seen hanging out of the mouth of a barracuda or nurse shark.

Recently I shot an image of a turtle that had a healed-over massive scrape on its shell. And I’ve seen another hawksbill that’s missing a front flipper. He was swimming in a circle (just kidding).

There is enough fishing gear on parts of Deep Molasses to open a tackle shop. I even found an intact rod and reel one day. And when that inventory runs low, we can tap into all the gear on Conch Wall.
Next Tuesday there is a SAC meeting in Key Largo, where parts of the agenda will discuss the zoning and redefinition of boundaries for protected areas.

We’ve talked about this before. And I will be talking about it again as this multi-year process unfolds. The diving community will hopefully be as involved as the commercial and recreational fishing groups. We all want to be involved with the water in our own way. This is our chance to have our say. For pressures exerted by fishing, see the Conditions Report:
I’ll be the first to admit that divers cause damage to the reef through inadvertent, and sometimes intentional, contact with the reef. This was documented in a recent study by Emma Camp, which I referenced in an earlier column.

My question is, have there been any studies that document damage from fishing gear?

Well, sort of. There is a massive amount of information about derelict fishing gear, but few with measured results of actual damage to the benthic layer. NOAA has a website devoted to it.

See It’s a huge problem and many organizations around the world are involved. There are grants for clean-up and programs to help commercial fishermen dispose of old gear.

Will it help? I hope so, but don’t know. I look at this like the lionfish invasion. There may be some positive results, but I think the snowball is too far down the hill to stop the momentum in total.

To gauge the snowball effect, take a look at Mallory Watson’s thesis at the University of Miami. Mallory studied marine debris in the Florida Keys reef tract from 2002 to 2010. I was quite literally stunned when I saw the map. The document is here: The map is on page 93. And here’s the kicker: a significant amount of the debris lies in no-take zones.

I thought that was odd, so I kept digging. An earlier study (June to September, 2001), led by Mark Chiappone, documented significantly more hook and line gear in no-take zones. Huh? One caveat noted was that some of the derelict gear had been there since before the no-take lines were drawn. But that does not explain the similar results in the Watson thesis, nearly 10 years later.

The Chiappone study mentions anglers that do not know the rules are likely to be attracted to the no-fishing areas because the sites are not clearly marked. I can tell you from personal experience that more than half the days I’m out on the reef I see a private boat violating the sanctuary rules. Lack of boater education is a major issue.

We have talked before about the benefits of protected areas. But protection without enforcement does not work. No wonder the topic at the top of the list for the sanctuary is a adding more law enforcement.

I find it quite interesting that small island communities all through the Pacific are effectively managing their home reefs. Think of that for just a second. Small island communities in developing countries with socioeconomic umbilical cords connected to their reefs are demonstrating the viability and effectiveness of managed areas, and specifically, no-take zones. See Apo Island for one of the best examples: While our situation is obviously more complex, perhaps we can learn some good things from their grassroots approach.

I am all for redrawing boundaries — extend the SPA sizes to encompass all the white mooring buoys inside the markers, and do not allow trolling through any zones. Further, to relieve some stress from divers — we have not even discussed the appropriate or sustainable “load” of diving activity on a specific site — add more mooring buoys and rotate their use.

Aquarius Update: Tonight at the Murray E. Nelson Government Center at mile marker 102, Dr. Mark Patterson will present an update on Aquarius Reef Base. Mark is a professor of marine science at the College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Dr. Patterson has used the Aquarius Reef Base to conduct research since 1984. He will present the new business model for Aquarius, and the future of human habitation of the sea floor.

The event will begin at 6 p.m. with a social hour, followed by the lecture at 7 p.m. For more information, contact Linda Kaplan at or (305) 396-7000, or visit

Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at or through his web site at Tim is actively involved with the Coral Restoration Foundation and the Aquarius Foundation.

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