Red Grouper, Epinephelus morio
The Red Grouper, Epinephelus morio, whose common Spanish name is cherna Americana, is a species in the Grouper or Epinephelidae Family, known collectively as cabrillas and garropas in Mexico. Globally, there are one hundred species in the genus Epinephelus, eleven of which are found in Mexican waters, six in the Atlantic and five in the Pacific.
The Red Groupers are robust fish with oblong bodies. They vary in color but are overall a dark reddish brown with an unorganized pattern of white speckles and blotches on their sides. Their head is a uniform chocolate brown dorsally transitioning to pale with a red tinge ventrally. Their mouth lining is scarlet-orange. Their anal, caudal, and second dorsal fins have dark margins. They have a relatively small mouth with large eyes. Their anal fin has 3 spines and 9 rays; their dorsal fin has 11 spines (the second being the longest) and 16 or 17 rays; their caudal fin is square; their pelvic fins are short and inserted behind the pectoral fins. Their body is covered with thick skin and scales.
The Red Groupers are non-migratory bottom dwellers found within rock structures at depths between 15 and 1,100 feet. Juveniles are found within inshore reefs; as the fish mature they move further offshore. They reach a maximum of 1.25 meters (4 feet 1 inch) in length and 23 kg (51 pounds) in weight. They feed on crustaceans, fish, and squid. In turn they are heavily preyed upon by larger fish including barracudas and sharks. They are protogynous hermaphrodites and undergo a sex reversal with females transitioning to males at mid-life. They are not aggregation spawners; fertilization occurs via pelagic eggs that hatch within 30 hours. They have lifespans of up to 25 years and are prone to red tide poisoning.
In Mexican waters the Red Grouper are found in all waters of the Atlantic.
The Red Grouper can be confused with several other Epinephelus, and specifically the Nassau Grouper, Epinephelus striatus, but the Red Groupers have larger dorsal fins and lack the notch between the first and second dorsal fins. In addition, their pectoral fins are longer than their pelvic fins and are inserted behind the pelvic fins, which are atypical features of Epinephelus.
The Red Groupers are targeted by both commercial and recreational fishermen within the Gulf of Mexico. They are a fierce foe requiring heavy tackle to land. They were once the most abundant commercial Grouper in West Florida. They are caught with hook and line and marketed fresh. However, they are known to contain Cigua Toxin. This species has been significantly overfished and populations have declined by at least 50% in the last 50 years. Juveniles are also major casualties as by-catches of shrimp trawlers. At present they are heavily regulated in United States waters and by the Mexican Government but such actions have had very little impact on the overall populations. From a conservation perspective they are currently listed as Near Threatened but in the next five years this will most certainly be changed to Vulnerable due to diminished populations, slow reproduction cycles and growth rates, and continued heavy overfishing. As such they are facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future. They are also used in the aquarium trade.
Red Grouper, Epinephelus morio, juvenile, male. Fish caught from coastal waters off Key West, Florida, August 2014. Length: 41 cm (16 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Dean Kimberly, Atlanta, GA.