One of Blacktip Island’s over-stressed Nassau grouper confronts a photographer on the small Caribbean island’s Hammerhead Hole reef Thursday. (photo courtesy of q. phia)
A Blacktip Island conservation group has teamed up with local scientists to adapt virtual reality headsets to fish in an effort to save the Caribbean island’s stressed Nassau grouper population.
“We’ve had a marked uptick in the number of visitors to the island, in divers on the reefs,” Reef Stasi president Lucille Ray said. “That’s got the Nassaus freaked out, especially with camera-wielding divers chasing them around the reef, despite the dive staffs’ efforts.
“The groupers are high-tailing it from guests, even when divers point out lionfish for them to eat,” Ray said. “They’re not eating or interacting with other fish. Healthy, happy grouper are an indicator of a healthy reef ecosystem, and ours are severely stressed. As the grouper go, so goes the reef.”
Scientists are concerned about the impact on grouper populations.
“Nassaus only spawn once a year, and now’s the time they do it,” local ichthyologist Goby Graysby said. “Problem is, with them so stressed, they didn’t spawn with February’s full moon. And they’re not showing any signs spawning anytime soon, they’re so wound up.
“Nassaus are endangered worldwide, so this is potentially a hammer blow to the species’ survival,” Graysby said. “We had to take action, and banning divers would’ve killed our island dive industry. Adapted goggles seemed the obvious next step.”
The practicalities of that solution came from a university engineering experiment.
“We’d already been working on goggles for sight-impaired fish, so it was just a minor shift for us,” Tiperon University-Blacktip optical engineering professor Glaseid Snapper said. “Our goggles show grouper a deserted reef so they’ll relax. They also dial back the groupers’ lateral line sensitivity, so they don’t notice movements in the water around them as much.
“We’re beta testing it on a few fish on one of the more popular reefs,” Snapper said. “After that, we’ll outfit as many fish as possible to get them calmed down and getting jiggy with each other again.”
Large-scale goggle production will be handled by island scuba manufacturer Bamboo You.
“We’ll crank out as many of these puppies as needed,” Bamboo You sales manager Christina Mojarra said. “Guests can also adopt a grouper, for a fee, to help offset the cost of the units. It’s an ambitious plan, but we’re up to the challenge.”
Environmentalists stressed the goggles are only a short-term solution.
“We need to modify the underwater behavior of dive guests so groupers don’t get so wigged out,” animal rights activist Harry Pickett said. “The underwater paparazzi behavior has got to stop. This is a canary in the coal mine moment—if this stress spreads to other fish species, they may all stop breeding.
“We’re making it a real community effort,” Pickett said. “Staff at all the resorts are educating guests on how to properly interact with our finned friends going forward. Until this crisis is over, we’re all groupers.”