Scientists learn red grouper operate as underwater architects

(Video still Courtesy Florida State University)

By Juliet Eilperin

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010

Red grouper are known for a few key characteristics — their hue, which can range from pink to bright orange; their tastiness, whether they’re grilled or sautéed; and their predation method, in which they ambush fellow sea creatures and swallow them whole.

But their least-known attribute might be the most valuable of all: They operate as underwater architects, transforming the seascape for myriad other forms of underwater life, rather than just residing there. That surprising discovery is forcing scientists and policymakers to recalibrate their approach to preserving the ocean’s natural order — and heightening tensions with those who fish for a living or as a hobby.

A team of scientists, led by Florida State University’s Felicia Coleman, recently found that the red grouper off Florida’s east and west coasts and throughout the Gulf of Mexico have created entire ocean communities by digging large holes in the sea’s sandy bottom. In the same way beavers construct dams, red grouper excavate and maintain distinct holes whose rocky surfaces provide a place for coral, sponges and other marine life to congregate.

The discovery, published in January in the Open Fish Science Journal, highlights the extent to which researchers are just beginning to grasp the complexity of marine creatures’ behavior.

“Our view of fish is changing,” said Marine Conservation Biology Institute president Elliott Norse, whose group helped fund Coleman’s research. “We now see fish as living, breathing entities, not only as meat.”

This new understanding is changing the way federal and state authorities manage ocean habitats and is creating a stark new rift with fishermen. “The people who are in control want to prohibit fishing as much as possible,” said Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association. He added that the recent revelations about red grouper amount to an “excuse they can use to restrict fishing, commercial or recreational.”

But to many researchers, fishery officials and even some fishermen, the fact that fish act as environmental engineers provides a compelling reason to protect them from exploitation.

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