Loving Your Neighbor – The Case of The Nassau Grouper

A guest post from Bob Sluka:

We all know that as Christians we are commanded to love our neighbor. Jesus was famously asked “and who is my neighbor?” Had he been a marine biologist, Jesus might have answered with a story about Nassau grouper.

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Nassau grouper. Photo credit J.E Randall, www.fishbase.org

Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) is a species of fish that lives in the warm, sub-tropical and tropical waters of the southeastern USA, Bahamas and the Caribbean Sea. It can grow to sizes over 1m and live to age 29. Unfortunately, it is also very tasty. Nassau grouper have become commercially extinct in many areas of the Caribbean and is on the US endangered species list.

I was reading a research article by Craig Dahlgreen and colleagues that utilized some cool science to determine movement patterns of this fish species. They used small acoustic transmitters attached to fish to track movement patterns over several years in the central Bahamas. This paper brought back many memories as the article was focused on an area where I did post-doctoral research in the mid-1990s and more recently had the opportunity to help lead a holistic mission trip combining traditional short term experiences like youth camps and building projects with creation care. As the lead scientist in A Rocha International’s Marine and Coastal Conservation Programme, I try and think theologically when I read science articles and scientifically when I read theological articles. Craig’s paper got me thinking about loving your neighbor and what that might mean for the many species of fish, like Nassau grouper, that form spawning aggregations.

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Nassau grouper in a spawning aggregation. Photo credit Chuck Knapp, Shedd Aquarium.

A spawning aggregation is formed when fish (or really any species) migrate and group in larger than normal numbers to spawn. In the case of Nassau grouper, fish move from the areas that they normally live in mostly alone, and where they don’t move a whole lot, to areas where they can gather in the hundreds or even historically tens of thousands. In the Bahamas, Nassau grouper form spawning aggregations at specific locations during the full moon Dec-February, with individual fish often only traveling once to an aggregation. Craig’s study showed that fish move from the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a marine protected area designed to conserve these fish species, up to 200 km away to aggregate in Long Island, among other sites. The study also shows that it isn’t enough to protect this species by setting aside marine parks, a form of conservation which is very successful generally and which resonates with many Biblical motifs such as Sabbath. The science shows we must also love our neighbor.

The science shows we must also love our neighbor.

The Bahamas has wisely protected Nassau grouper spawning aggregations by closing them to fishing during the months that the fish gather to spawn. However, there is great temptation to catch fish during this time as they are gathered in one place in large numbers at a predicable time. However, if you are from Long Island and you choose to ignore the ban on fishing, you are not only hurting yourself and being a poor steward of God’s resources by catching fish before they have had a chance to spawn, but not loving your neighbors in the Exumas. Since a large number of the fish in the aggregations travel long distances to them, taking fish out of season is not only unwise for your future, it is taking away significantly from your neighbor hundreds of kilometers away. It is not loving to them.

Let’s use science to its fullest to understand how to live more fully as followers of Christ in a complex and inter-connected world.

Science can inform how we can be more loving and just who is our neighbor. Many of us do things which could be having a negative impact on people far from us. Let’s use science to its fullest to understand how to live more fully as followers of Christ in a complex and inter-connected world.

Bob Sluka

About the author:
“I grew up loving the ocean – despite spending my first 18 years of life in Detroit.  Starting diving at age 13 and degrees in marine biology from University of Miami convinced me that a life lived studying the ocean was for me.  I am working towards a life that integrates my Christian beliefs and love of the ocean in a way that brings blessing to people, nations, and the planet.  I am Lead Scientist of A Rocha International’s Marine and Coastal Conservation Programme and am an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.”