Nassau Grouper

Nassau Grouper, Epinephelus striatus

The Nassau Grouper, Epinephelus striatus, whose common Spanish name is mero del caribe, 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 Nassau Groupers have robust oblong bodies and are very large in stature with a thick body and a large mouth. They have large eyes and coarse spiny fins. A key to identification is their  third and fourth dorsal spines which are longer than their second spine. The caudal fin is rounded in juveniles and convex in adults. Their pelvic fins are shorter than their pectoral fins. In shallow waters, they are an overall sand color; in deeper waters, they are pinkish to red. They have five irregular dark brown vertical bars on each side, a large black saddle on top of their caudal base, and another dark band that runs from their snout through their eye curving up to meet the same band on the opposite side just before the dorsal fin origin. The third and fourth bars form a W-shape above their lateral line. They have a tuning fork-shaped mark on their forehead and black dots around their eyes. They have several sets of strong, slender teeth that act as raspers. They have the ability to change colors from light to dark brown very quickly and can thus easily blend into their environment.

The Nassau Groupers are common from inshore to offshore within rocky and coral reef environments. They reside demersal at depths up to 300 feet. They reach a maximum length of 1.20 meters (4 feet 0 inches) and can weigh over 23 kg (50 pounds) but are more common in the 30 to 60 cm (12 to 24 inch) and 2 to 4 kg (4 to 9 pound) range. They are solitary and diurnal ambush predators that feed on crabs, fish, lobsters, and octopus; they also feed on shrimp by inhaling them. In turn they are preyed upon by barracudas, hammerhead sharks, king mackerels, moray eels, and sandbar sharks. The Nassau Groupers have a symbiotic relationship with cleaner wrasses who remove parasites from their mouths. They are slow breeders that form large spawning aggregations during December and January ranging in size from a few dozen to several hundred individuals. Their eggs hatch into pelagic larva, which drift in currents for thirty or more days. They are protogynous hermaphrodites, with females changing to males after one or two spawning cycles. They have a lifespan of up to sixteen years.

The Nassau Groupers have a wide distribution in the Western Atlantic, however, in Mexico that found only in waters adjacent the Yucatán.

The Nassau Grouper is an easy fish to identify due to its characteristic coloration.

The Nassau Groupers are targeted by both recreational anglers and commercial fishermen and are a major focus during spawning seasons as their location is well known to locals. They are an important food fish throughout the Caribbean and West Indies. They are caught primarily by hook and line, longline, gillnets, and traps. They will also approach divers making them easy targets for spearfishermen. Their meat is marketed fresh, however, they are known to contain Cigua Toxin. The Nassau Groupers are currently considered an endangered species with a population decline of at least 60% in the last 30 years; they have become commercially extinct in many areas. This decrease is attributed to focus feeding during breeding season, their sedentary behavior, habitat loss, pollution, invasive species taking up residence in their traditional territories, and catching of undersized fish. Catching of this species is now banned in the United States and heavily regulated in most waters of the Caribbean. Current global populations are estimated at approximately 10,000 mature individuals.

Nassau Grouper, Epinephelus striatus. Fish caught from coastal waters off Key West, Florida, August 2014. Length: 37 cm (15 inches). Photo courtesy of Dean Kimberly, Atlanta, GA.