"The grouper, with its large size, has suddenly disappeared from several maritime areas of the Mediterranean," comments a sailor in his fifties who used to live off catches of this type of fish, whom we met at an official meeting of maritime fishing professionals in northern Morocco. And he still has to pay tax and the rent for a marine equipment shop, the wages of the workers on his boat, insurance costs and for his children's clothes and food.
These words prompted us to look into the reasons why the fish known as 'grouper' has begun to gradually disappear from certain coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. This type of fish can live up to 50 or 60 years. The grouper changes sex during its life: as a "protogynous hermaphrodite", it is initially female and then becomes male when it reaches 60 to 70 cm, at the age of 10 to 14. In the 1990s, some Mediterranean countries such as Tunisia and the government of Gibraltar placed its image on postage stamps because of its value and importance for the sea.
But today, overfishing in the Mediterranean has caused Mediterranean grouper stocks to fall below sustainable levels and has even eliminated them from a large part of their range.
All the fishers we met in the course of reporting this story point the finger at divers and amateur underwater fishermen who target this type of fish indiscriminately, without any scientific rules or controls relating to compliance with catch periods. In their view, this is the main reason for the disappearance of this type of fish, which is in great demand in restaurants because of its nutritional and commercial value, with a price of 400 dirhams per kilogram, the equivalent of 40 dollars. They claim that this is why these amateur divers are armed with underwater hunting weapons, oxygen tanks and diving equipment that allows them to reach 100 meters underwater. The greater the depth, the greater the chance of finding the "Merou monster", as one of the fishers puts it, which can weigh in at over 50 kilograms.
Mustafa Mazrouh, a professional fisher in the Wad Lao region overlooking the Mediterranean, around 104 kilometers from Tangier, says that unregulated fishing by divers is threatening this type of fish. He points out that in this area, where sea fishing is the main economic driver, the Merou has disappeared, so fishermen have started to fish for other types of fish and shellfish.
The Merou in one click
To understand Mustafa Mazrouh's assertion, we sought out divers who are prepared to talk about or respond to these accusations, but the majority of them refuse to talk about this aspect. One of them available on a Facebook page stated that "fishing for grouper is his hobby, and he doesn't sell" but he refused to delve further into the details of the subject after a chat we had with him on Facebook.
All you have to do is search YouTube to see that it is full of channels devoted to grouper fishing, where people sometimes boast about the size of this fish, regardless of when it was caught, its size or its age. In this way, additional profits are made at the expense of this species of fish through the views.
According to field visits to some restaurants in Tangier, some Merou fishes bear marks and a hole between the eyes,. Those come from uncontrolled diving, as they are sold on the black market by divers to restaurant owners at prices outside the official fish markets regulated by the state, thus escaping taxes and damaging the local economy.
"Unfortunately, some fishermen outside the associations use illegal tools to catch grouper and other fish. The greatest danger for them is fishing indiscriminately with illegal nets that catch anything that clings to them. We have already warned that hundreds of young grouper fish are caught in fishing nets despite their biological rest periods, which must be respected," explains Younis al-Baghdidi, president of the Fenaidek Association of Champions of Underwater Fishing and Environmental Protection.
The association's president added that "underwater fishing enthusiasts within the associations take part in activities to protect the marine environment and are the only ones working to recover nets stuck to the seabed, marine fishing waste and plastic waste, in order to achieve a healthy environment. They also take part in national and international programs to protect the marine environment and encourage cooperatives to propose aquaculture, tourist diving and marine tourism projects, as well as raising awareness among fishers of the need to protect sea turtles and dolphins because of their importance to the marine environment."
The troubles linked to Merou fishing using random methods in the Mediterranean Sea and its repercussions have reached the headquarters of the Chamber of Mediterranean Sea Fishing, a constitutional government body representing seafarers through 35 elected members, which is consulted before issuing any decision of interest to the sea fishing sector in Morocco, and whose territorial influence extends from Larache to the borders of the town of Saidia in the east.
During the March 2022 session of the chamber, this problem was strongly addressed, after which correspondence was sent on the subject to the Ministry of Sea Fisheries as the government entity and guardian of the sector.
"One of the results of the chamber's General Assembly, at its first session held on Friday 25 March 2022, was the request after numerous interventions to put an end to the greed of divers who are in abundance along the Mediterranean Sea and who practice illegal, unauthorized and unregulated fishing," the chamber said unanimously in correspondence on the subject.
In the same letter, the Chamber proposed, in order to preserve this fish species of high commercial and nutritional value, "to demand that a study be carried out by the National Institute for Maritime Fisheries Research on the stocks of grouper fish found in the Mediterranean Sea", "to prepare a special program for the conservation of this type of fish found only in the Mediterranean Sea", and then "to demand the temporary suspension of the granting of diving licenses until conditions allow". Also emphasized was the need to "step up controls in coordination with the auxiliary forces, the Royal Gendarmerie and the judicial police to put an end to this type of illegal and unauthorized indiscriminate fishing and save this type of fish from extinction."
Among the proposals contained in the Chamber's correspondence, it was suggested "to tighten controls inside entertainment ports in order to control divers who own entertainment boats which they use to access diving sites to catch Merou and many other types of noble and highly prized fish."
The mirror of the sea
The fact that fish live in the depths of the sea for so long proves one thing: that the sea is in good health, according to experts at Morocco's National Institute for Maritime Fisheries Research. The area inhabited by the Merou is classified as a "mirror of the sea", with a healthy environment, free from pollution and noise from ships.
In this regard, Benchoucha, a biologist at Morocco's National Institute for Maritime Fisheries Research in Tangier, which is the only institution responsible for scientifically monitoring fish species on the Moroccan coast, and affiliated to the Central Institute in Rabat, said: "There are around eight species of Merou fish on the Moroccan coast, but the most important of these are the white, the dark red and the brown Merou. It is forbidden to fish for the latter along the national coast," stresses Benchoucha.
During the 1990s, the sea was subjected to great stress during fishing, which threatened this species of fish, and there is therefore a scientific possibility that it will be classified as an endangered fish. The institute has begun monitoring this species of fish in the Mediterranean from the port of Tangier.
According to Benchoucha, Merou are known to reproduce during the summer months. Decisions have therefore been taken to ban fishing of these fish during this period in order to preserve their growth, and the artificial reefs that have recently been installed on the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea have helped them to reproduce.
He adds that their life cycle is complex: as well as living a long time, they also transform from female to male. So catching the Merou at random can threaten its existence, especially as it is a friendly fish that approaches humans.
There are no official statistics on the scientific monitoring of Merou fish, partly because they live in caves and at great depths and are difficult to track, according to experts at the National Fisheries Research Institute. Divers are still taking advantage of this loophole, as well as a legal gap concerning this type of fish in particular, whose capture is linked to recreational fishing, or the law on determining the conditions and procedures for issuing and renewing fishing licenses in the exclusive economic zone, which remains no more than a ministerial decree.
Morocco has no special, detailed law on Merou fish, with the exception of a ministerial decree which determines the biological limits of certain species of fish, and within its category this type of fish is banned from fishing from July until the end of September each year, to coincide with the spawning period.
Faced with the lack of a specific legal framework for exactly this species, the Moroccan legislator has adapted a recently published law, within a ministerial decree, which defines the conditions under which recreational fishing can be carried out personally or collectively.
The penalties section includes a prison sentence of between three months and one year and a fine of between 5,000 and 1,000,000 dirham, or one of these two penalties, for anyone who catches marine objects not indicated in the fishing permit, attempts to catch them or is involved in catching them, or who fails to comply with the data stipulated in the fishing permit. The same penalty applies, according to the same source, to anyone who has fished for, worked to catch, kept, transported, bought or sold marine items that do not reach the minimum length or legal size in breach of the provisions of the law, or exceeded the percentage of the authorized threshold set for the items in question.
The law governing entertainment, including diving, does not prohibit fishing if you have a license, which is granted for a fee of 250 dirhams per year, but this law is considered lax due to the lack of clear and stipulated legislation on fishing, so it is enough for each diver to have a license and go fishing without taking into account the biological rest stages.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Al-bahr24 on 18 April 2023 in Arabic; this version has been adapted by EJN's Mediterranean Media Initiative.
Banner image: A grouper fish in a supermarket, Morocco, 2023 / Credit: Mohamed Abatach.