[Coral-List] Comments on encounter RE: Goliath Grouper encounters

Will Nuckols wnuckols at erols.com
Wed Nov 7 14:06:48 EST 2012

Several good points Steve. 

I could repeat many of the good points that have already been said in the emails on in this thread, but I'll instead focus on a slightly different angle. 

Re: educating the public not to touch anything: Clearly there are a range of harms that come from interacting with wildlife, but it seems ridiculous to me to say that we want the public to understand more complex concepts such as the value of top predators or protecting a spawning aggregation or the role of coral reefs as a critical component of highly valued ecosystems, and at the same time assume that people can't be informed about relative impact. 

We're hoping that we can teach the value of these species and their habitats with the and goal being protecting them - even though when a layperson looks at the areas where these occur and, especially when the aggregation isn't present, the area looks pretty generic and uninteresting. And we're hoping to have the general public understand also understand things such as multi-decade long processes that have an anthropogenic component to them and the that threat is a major threat to coral reefs. 

Those education goals seem downright silly if you believe that you can't show someone interacting with a goliath grouper and inspire them with those images and also tell them that standing on a  brain coral is a type of interaction that will cause immense damage. The public isn't that dense. 

Contrast the image of people gently interacting with those wonderful giant of the reef with images of people blasting them in the head when they were being killed in huge numbers by commercial divers. I'm much more concerned about the sportsfishing and commercial fishing claims from a handful of folks who think the later type of interaction is OK than the people who visit the groupers because they want to understand them, fall in love with them and then hopefully protect them and in the process find some which are so comfortable with their visitors to interact through touch. 

I think the public does have the ability to learn concepts such as you can touch one thing with low likelihood of doing major damage, but for some other thing touching it will surely kill it. We just need to teach them which is which and why. 

It is noteworthy that I've had goliaths bump into me when they follow me around on a dive - a point which illustrates that unlike most marinelife, these fish (or at least some individuals within the species) don't object to contact across the board. Other individuals by contrast clearly avoid even being proximate to people, much less touch them. From the video is looks like the fish in the piece are the former type.  

While I'm not going to go out of my way to advocate touching marine life as a general practice (I personally avoid touching most marine life), I do agree it is important to pick our battles as Steve and others have suggested.  There are major problems out there yet to be solved. I'm pretty confident that this isn't one of them. 

Will Nuckols 

-----Original Message-----
From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov [mailto:coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov] On Behalf Of Steve Mussman
Sent: Tuesday, November 06, 2012 11:20 AM
To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
Subject: Re: [Coral-List] Comments on encounter RE: Goliath Grouper encounters

     It  is understandable that there are some concerns about the message
   conveyed in Sarah's video presentation.

     But perhaps the indignation expressed would be better served if channeled
   towards  affecting change in an entire industry that actively promotes
   unnatural shark feeding photo ops.

     Or in challenging programs that brings boat loads of snorkelers into close
   proximity of the annual whale shark aggregates off the Yucatan.

     And what about whale and dolphin captivity?     Keep them wild remember?

     A major American aquarium is currently requesting permission for the
   importation of additional Beluga whales . . . how about denouncing this
   "educational" experience?

     Or what about the captivity of migratory whale sharks in a ten meter pool
   and the associated dive/swim with gentle giants experience? The world's
   leading  scuba  agency  even  offers  a  certification for the effort.

     IMO,  Dr.  Frias-Torres'  impulsive  interaction is forgivable, I've
   seen renowned marine conservationists take similar action and I would defend
   them all for it's obvious that their motives and intentions were pure.

     And besides, if you can pardon the expression, there are bigger fish to

   -----Original Message-----
   >From: Martin Stelfox
   >Sent: Nov 5, 2012 2:31 PM
   >To: Sarah Frias-Torres , sjk012 at knights.ucf.edu, coral list
   >Subject:  Re:  [Coral-List] Comments on encounter RE: Goliath Grouper
   >Dear Dr. Frias-Torres
   >Thank you for your response I appreciate your time.
   > I would like to clearly state that I did not depict you as an
   >irresponsible scientist. As I mentioned the work you are doing is
   >essential and you clearly have a wealth of knowledge and experience in
   >this area. I also agree that there are far bigger concerns facing
   >groupers other than physical interaction but we, as scientist,
   >understand the real problem at hand and how to interact with wildlife
   > I would like to draw your attention to your target audience for the
   >video â not addressed to scientists but to the SCUBA diving community
   >..â I have worked with many SCUBA divers over the years and time and
   >time again I see divers touching marine wildlife, not just curious
   >fish but also marine mammals and coral species. I think SCUBA divers
   >are a key element in ecotourism however I do have experience with
   >divers copying what they see other divers or scientist do, and that
   >includes touching and chasing.
   >Yes there are countless YouTube videos of people landing endangered
   >species and irresponsibly handling and also footage of divers
   >generally harassing marine life, these people are the uneducated that
   >we need to set an example for - and this is your target audience.
   > Obviously It would be better to have a group of experienced divers
   >interacting passively with groupers than for them to be hooked - but
   >not all divers have experience or knowledge in marine interactions,
   >they simply copy what they see.
   >On Mon, Nov 5, 2012 at 7:17 PM, Jason Krumholz wrote:
   >> All,
   >> Some interesting points on both sides of this issue, and Sarah, I do see
   >>  your argument that any portrayal of how these majestic fish can be
   >> for their intrinsic value, or at least without being killed is a step in
   >> right direction. However, as one who has studied quite a bit on the
   >> communication of science to the general public, I think I do need to
   >> a few of your points below:
   >> 1) You are an expert diver, and a trained and practiced scientist with a
   >> great deal of experience working with these fish. YOU can tell when a
   >> like this is not exhibiting aggressive behavior. YOU can tell when there
   >> a lack of courtship coloration/behavior. YOU can tell the difference
   >> between waiting patiently and calmly for a fish to approach you, vs.
   >> harassing it. As such, YOU probably had very little, if any impact on the
   >> fish pictured. John (Jane) Q. Recreational Diver is none of these things,
   >> and probably doesn't know enough to make the distinction. Because you are
   >> an expert, video of you doing stuff like this to a certain degree carries
   >>  the  implicit  'stamp of approval' for divers & tourists to handle
   >> whether you mean for it to or not.
   >> 2) Whether or not the video is appropriate, the fact that there are
   >>  of  people  doing  worse  things  does  nothing  in support of the
   >> of the video. By your logic, the people line fishing for the grouper and
   >> posting it on youtube could say "Check out this youtube of some guy
   >> a puppy, that's way worse, so what we did is fine by comparison." Also,
   >> above, there is a HUGE difference between 'some guy' posting a video of
   >> doing something, and an expert in the field doing it. If 'some guy' takes
   >>  steroids, nobody cares, but when pro athletes do, it's a huge deal
   >> it sets a bad example, regardless of their situation. We are the pro
   >> athletes of the marine ecology world (unfortunately, the sponsorship
   >> and large contracts for us appear to still be pending).. Like it or not,
   >> everything we do gets an extra degree of scrutiny.
   >>  3) The inquisitive behavior you document may be partially learned.
   >> can't tell if you're carrying a speargun or not, and a number of positive
   >> encounters with humans only reinforces to those fish that divers aren't
   >> harmful... but it only takes one spear.
   >> I can't say I didn't enjoy the video, and you're right, you technically
   >> can't stop the producer from publishing the video but at the very least,
   >> would encourage the videographer to point out that, in general, it's not
   >> good idea to touch wildlife, and that groupers CAN be aggressive, and the
   >> divers portrayed are expert scientists.
   >> My $0.02
   >> Jason
   >> Dear Martin and Stacy,Thank your for your comments.
   >> I have been working with endangered marine wildlife since 1992. As such,
   >> aware of the perils of people interacting with wild animals, and cases
   >> ecotourism can go terribly wrong. In the case of goliath groupers, we
   have a
   >> conundrum on whether we can accept a minor disturbance as an alternative
   >> death. Since death is rather terminal, it seems the only logical action
   >> to minimize negative effects from ecotourism.
   >> Perhaps the best way to resolve your concerns will be to take you scuba
   >> diving with the goliath groupers. Goliaths are extremely curious and
   >> unafraid of divers. This inquisitive behavior has been documented by many
   >> scientists.. In fact, it's been a major factor in increasing their
   >> vulnerability to extinction, as the goliaths become easy targets for
   >> spearfishers.
   >> Injury by a goliath grouper might occur when a diver attempts to feed
   >> This was not the case here. None of the scuba divers portrayed in the
   >>  fed the groupers. The divers did not chase after the groupers. The
   >> approached us on their own.
   >> We did not interrupt spawning activity on this night. There were no
   >> females, and there was a lack of courtship and courtship coloration
   >> indicating pre-spawning behavior. And no aggression resulted from our
   >> activities.. You can see in the video, goliaths waiting right by the
   >> and staying there, with no signs of stress.
   >> The video was produced by an independent filmmaker, who has the freedom
   >> post his videos in you tube.
   >> Your concerns are important, but that's no reason to portray me as an
   >> irresponsible scientist. In youtube, you can also find many videos of
   >> fishers who capture goliath groupers and land them on the deck of the
   >> for their own pleasure and to take pictures. All the time the goliaths
   >> fighting in the line and the time spent out of the water, the fish are
   >> suffering tremendous stress and being slowly asphyxiated. Not to mention
   >> that these fishers are violating the "possession" terms of the current
   >> federal and state moratorium on goliath grouper harvest. Perhaps you can
   >> also share your concerns with the authors of every single youtube video
   >> where such violation is portrayed.
   >> Now, let's consider what is more stressful for the goliath groupers: to
   >> a group of experienced divers not chasing you, but waiting for you to
   >> approach them, or to be hooked, fight for your life, get landed on the
   >> of a boat and slowly asphyxiate until someone remembers to release you
   >> in to the ocean.
   >> Sarah Frias-Torres, Ph.D. Independent ScientistTwitter: @GrouperDocBlog:
   >> rres
   >>> Date: Mon, 5 Nov 2012 14:16:39 0000
   >>> Subject: Re: [Coral-List] Goliath Grouper encounters
   >>> From: martinrstelfox at gmail.com
   >>> To: sjk012 at knights.ucf.edu
   >>> CC: sfrias_torres at hotmail.com; coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
   >>> Dear Dr. Frias-Torres.
   >>> As you well know, Goliath groupers are classed as critically
   >>> endangered and are under immense pressure due to anthropogenic stress.
   >>> I think that the work and research you are doing is extremely valuable
   >>> for the future of the species, however, I do agree with Stacy on how
   >>> the species interaction is portrayed in the YouTube video.
   >>> I have worked on numerous conservation projects around the world and I
   >>> have worked with and educated many non scientific minded individuals
   >>> on current issues within marine biology. I think the most important
   >>> tool we have as educators is to take people on an experience that
   >>> completely removes them from what they are used to, bringing in an
   >>> emotional experience that could change the way they perceive an
   >>> environment or trigger an interest which may be passed on.
   >>> To address the problem to SCUBA divers with footage of Goliath
   >>> groupers being touched by scientists I think sends out completely the
   >>> wrong message. For the average SCUBA diver, touching organisms is
   >>> something they do not consider to be a problem in the ecosystem - when
   >>> in fact it is. Unnecessarily disrupting natural behaviour, not to
   >>> mention the potential hazard to individual divers by touching
   >>> something they shouldn't. I agree that the video should be
   >>> reconsidered, as the target audience must understand that interfering
   >>> with an organism's behaviour and physiology is both understudied and
   >>> harmful to the organisms and the individual.
   >>> Regards,
   >>> Martin Stelfox,
   >>> On Sun, Nov 4, 2012 at 4:34 PM, sjk012 wrote:
   >>> > Dear Dr. Frias-Torres and Coral-listers,
   >>> >
   >>> > Is this really the message we are wanting to share with the public??
   >> approach and touch wild animals, more shockingly a Critically Threatened
   >> animal! I am incredibly disappointed that academics and avid divers would
   >> take part in this action, let alone film such an inappropriate act. And
   >> top it off, post it in on a globally accessible site such a youtube.
   >>> >
   >>> > As conservationist we should be spreading the "look don't touch" and
   >> "keep wildlife wild" messages. Portraying these animals as gentle giants
   >> further threatens their population. This video clearly demonstrates that
   >> touching and approaching wildlife is OK, and it is NOT. While I agree
   >> was an amazing opportunity to see these creatures in the wild, the
   >> continuous act of rubbing, touching, and "petting" these fish is
   >> unacceptable.
   >>> >
   >>> > Goliath groupers are ambush predators that use powerful suction to
   >> in their pray. This suction is strong enough to pull in a human's arm and
   >> their sharp rows of teeth can shred that person's hand and arm trying to
   >> remove it. These divers are very luckly they did not get injured and
   >> promoting this action with a video threatens other divers and threatens
   >> fish. Fish become stressed when they are touched and the mucus layer,
   >> is the first line of defense against disease, is disrupted. It is quite
   >> possible that this invasive encounter by humans during their spawning
   >>  was  enough to disrupt their activity that night, but the physical
   >> clearly detracted the animals risking the reproductive act and likely
   >> aggression.
   >>> >
   >>> > I highly encourage that this video is removed from youtube and that
   >> Dr... Frias-torres et al. rethink the messages the video portrays...I
   >> think touching critically endangered animals during spawning, or touching
   >> any wild animal for that matter, will ever be a good conservation message
   >> share with the public.
   >>> >
   >>> > Stacy
   >>> > Aquatic and Conservation Biologist
   >>> >
   >>> > ________________________________________
   >>> > From: Sarah Frias-Torres [sfrias_torres at hotmail.com]
   >>> > Sent: Friday, November 02, 2012 12:42 PM
   >>> > To: coral list
   >>> > Subject: [Coral-List] Goliath Grouper encounters
   >>> >
   >>> > Dear coral-listers
   >>> > Just wanted to share some extraordinary encounters with a charismatic
   >> coral reef fish we almost lost to extinction: the goliath grouper.
   >>> > We dove a wreck at night, in southeast Florida during this year's
   >> spawning aggregation season. We were fortunate to have a couple of
   >> filmmakers on board who produced this video, including the text provided
   >> You Tube..
   >>> > The 6.5 minute video is not addressed to scientists but to the SCUBA
   >> diving community. An example of reaching out beyond academic research.
   >>> > I'm the diver with a yellow bandana around minute 5.
   >>> > http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4Ho87oiUo4
   >>> >
   >>> > You can learn more about goliath groupers in my recent paper
   >>> > http://grouperluna.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/guilt-free-goliath-group
   >>> > ers/
   >>> >
   >>> > Enjoy
   >>> >
   >>> > Sarah Frias-Torres, Ph.D. Independent ScientistTwitter:
   >>> > @GrouperDocBlog:
   >>> > http://grouperluna.wordpress.comhttp://independent.academia.edu/Sara
   >>> > hFriasTorres
   >>> >
   >>> >
   >>> >
   >>> >
   >>> >
   >>> > _______________________________________________
   >>> > Coral-List mailing list
   >>> > Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
   >>> > http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list
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   1. http://www.georgiaaquarium.org/explore-the-aquarium/events-and-programs/belugainteractive.aspx
   2. http://www.georgiaaquarium.org/explore-the-aquarium/events-and-programs/swim-with-whale-sharks.aspx
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