scientific article | Mar Ecol Prog Ser
Many species of groupers form spawning aggregations, dramatic events where 100s to 1000s of individuals gather annually at specific locations for reproduction. Spawning aggregations are often targeted by local fishermen, making them extremely vulnerable to over fishing. The Red Hind Bank Marine Conservation District located in St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands, was closed seasonally in 1990 and closed permanently in 1999 to protect an important red hind Epinephelus guttatus spawning site. This study provides some of the first information on the population response of a spawning aggregation located within a marine protected area. Tag-and-release fishing and fish transects were used to evaluate population characteristics and habitat utilization patterns of a red hind spawning aggregation between 1999 and 2004. Compared with studies conducted before the permanent closure, the average size of red hind increased mostly during the seasonal closure period (10 cm over 12 yr), but the maximum total length of male red hind increased by nearly 7 cm following permanent closure. Average density and biomass of spawning red hind increased by over 60% following permanent closure whereas maximum spawning density more than doubled. Information from tag returns indicated that red hind departed the protected area following spawning and migrated 6 to 33 km to a ca. 500 km2 area. Protection of the spawning aggregation site may have also contributed to an overall increase in the size of red hind caught in the commercial fishery, thus increasing the value of the grouper fishery for local fishermen.