Fisheries and Resources Monitoring System

Marine resources - Western Central Atlantic
Fact Sheet Title  Fact Sheet
Review of the state of world marine fishery resources 2011
Marine resources - Western Central Atlantic
Fact Sheet Citation  
Owned byFood and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – ownership
ident Blockident Blockdisplay tree map
Species List: All aquatic species
ident Block Marine resources - Western Central Atlantic
Aq Res
Biological Stock: No         Value: Regional
Management unit: No        Reference year: 2009
Aq Res State Trend

To access all FIRMS State and Trend summaries available for this Area, please look at:
Status and Trend Summaries (extracted from reports)
Gulf and Atlantic menhaden

The stock abundance of Gulf menhaden (Brevoortia patronus) was estimated to be between its target and limit reference points and, thus, not considered to be overfished nor subject to overfishing. However, the stock will approach its limit reference points if the population fecundity decreases and fishing mortality continues to increase (Vaughan, Shertzer and Smith, 2007). Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) was not considered to be overfished nor was overfishing occurring in 2008, although uncertainties in the assessment led to the conclusion that overfishing was potentially occurring in 2008 (ASMFC, 2011).

Round sardinella

Following a survey carried out in 2009 along the Venezuelan eastern coasts, the biomass of round sardinella (Sardinella aurita) was estimated to have decreased significantly in the last few years. This is probably because of a combined effect of natural and fishing mortality coupled with unfavourable environmental conditions that hampered recruitment. The stock currently shows signs of overexploitation, if not depletion (López, personal communication). In the United States of America, despite the reduction in commercial landings of round sardinella on the west coast of Florida since 1995, fishery independent surveys undertaken in 2003 indicated that there had been no increase in abundance in recent years. The surveys suggest that factors other than fishing may be responsible for changes in abundance (Mahmoudi et al., 2002).


For flyingfish (Hirundichthys affinis), analysis of data until 2008 suggests that the eastern Caribbean stock is not experiencing overfishing, but because of the poor regional data available, the assessment could not determine whether local depletion is taking place (FAO, 2010). As part of the CLME Project, a case study is currently focusing on the improvement in availability of fisheries catch and effort data. It is hoped that this will lead to more reliable assessments in the future (CRFM, 2010a).

Atlantic thread herring

No formal stock assessment of Atlantic thread herring (Opisthonema oglinum) seems available in the region.

Flathead grey mullet

Assessments of flathead grey mullet carried out in Mexico show that, depending on the province, the species is either exploited at the MSY (Tamaulipas) or deteriorating (Veracruz), as evidenced by the sharp decrease in catches. Current management measures include a minimum landing size of 31 cm as well as a minimum mesh size of 101 mm (SAGARPA, 2010). The most recent assessment of flathead grey mullet in Florida waters indicates that the stock was not overfished and that nor was overfishing occurring (Mahmoudi, 2008). 

Greater amberjack and other highly migratory species

Greater amberjack, together with a number of highly migratory species (blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish, albacore, and bluefin tuna), were found to be subject to high fishing mortality, with biomass below the biological threshold specified in the fishery management plan. Sailfish in the Western Atlantic is no longer overfished, but is still subject to overfishing (NMFS, 2011).

Common dolphinfish

As for the common dolphinfish, any decline in the stock seems impossible to detect because of incomplete information available.
Therefore, no status could be clearly attributed from the last assessment undertaken with data from Caribbean, Venezuela, USA and Brazil (CRFM, 2010b). The standardized CPUE indices for the eastern Caribbean seem to show that the stock is not declining; however this may not be reflective of the whole Western Central Atlantic stock and precaution is required in interpreting this data.

Yellowfin tuna, Albacore and Skipjack tuna

Yellowfin tuna in the Atlantic was assessed with data up to 2006 (ICCAT, 2009). The stock was neither overfished nor subject to overfishing in 2006. However, the yellowfin tuna in the Atlantic Ocean is treated as a unit stock. The last assessment available for North Atlantic albacore stock indicates that the stock is likely to be overexploited and it recommended a reduction in its TAC (ICCAT, 2010). The assessment of the western stock of skipjack tuna, based on the data up to 2006 (ICCAT, 2009), concludes that the current catch is unlikely to be higher than the replacement yield, but no clear status was assigned.

King and Spanish mackerel

Assessment of the king mackerel fishery in United States waters estimated that the species was not overfished in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. However, uncertainty in stock assessments made it difficult to identify whether overfishing was occurring (SEDAR, 2009b). In the southern Caribbean, there has not been a significant change in king mackerel fishing mortality in the last ten years. Yet, it is not known whether the stock is overfished or not (CRFM, 2007). For Spanish mackerel on the South Atlantic coast of the U.S. results indicated that overfishing was not occurring, but there was uncertainty regarding the overfished status of the stock (SEDAR, 2008).

Several species of snappers and groupers

In its annual report to the United States Congress, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) indicated that several species of snappers and groupers are either subject to overfishing, overfished or both in the South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean regions. Northern red snapper, misty grouper, Nassau grouper, red grouper, yellowedge grouper, yellowfin grouper and black seabass were indicated as both subject to overfishing and overfished in the waters of the United States of America. The status of gag grouper was previously unknown in the United States of America, but evidence was found that it was subject to overfishing in the South Atlantic and overfished and subjected to overfishing in the Gulf of Mexico (NMFS, 2011). In Mexico, the red grouper is overfished and effort reductions have been recommended (SAGARPA, 2010). Only general indications are available for some fish stocks or species. For example, in Mexico, there are insufficient data to assess stock status of various coastal fishes stocks. However, many species are considered to be deteriorating (SAGARPA, 2010).
Another example is the southern red snapper (Lutjanus purpureus) in French Guiana, where a large recruitment has been recorded in recent years, along with a large adult biomass. This may indicate that the stock might be improving, at least in the short term, but the status is still unknown because no formal assessment has been undertaken (IFREMER, 2011).

Sharks and Rays

The status of shark stocks does not seem to be dealt with in a systematic way and, hence, only limited and scattered information is available. The exploitation status of sharks and rays in Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) was analyzed on the basis of data collected until 2006 (Tavares, 2009). They were found to sustain an important artisanal fishery along most of the coast and islands of the country. The author underlined the difficulty of collecting data on sharks at landing sites scattered along the coast. A total of 97 species (62 shark and 35 ray species) were recorded in the landings, with a predominance of the genera Mustelus and Rhizoprionodon. In the islands, the catch composition was dominated by Carcharhinus limbatus, C. perezi and Ginglymostoma cirratum. In contrast, catches of the industrial fishery were dominated by Prionace glauca and C. signatus. No stock assessment was carried out owing to the lack of detailed data and information. Loss of biodiversity and declines in abundance of several species were described (Tavares and Arocha, 2008), but there were still large uncertainties regarding the status of these stocks.
In Mexico, some rays (Dasyatis americana, D. sabina, Aetobatus narinari, Gymnura micrura and Rhinoptera bonasus) are known to be target species. Their populations were estimated to be exploited at their MSY. However, it was recommended that there be further increase in fishing effort (SAGARPA, 2010).
Sandbar shark, dusky shark and blacknose shark are subject to overfishing and overfished, while the shortfin mako is subject to overfishing (NMFS, 2011). Other species assessed such as finetooth shark, Atlantic sharpnose and bonnethead are neither overfished nor subject to overfishing, as were blacktip shark stocks in the Gulf of Mexico (SEDAR, 2006, 2007).

Spiny lobster

Spiny lobster in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo region, Mexico, was estimated to be exploited at around MSY. It was recommended that a reliable effort control system be established to prevent any further increase in fishing mortality (SAGARPA, 2010). However, in contrast, Chávez (2009) estimates that lobster populations in southern Mexico are overexploited.
In the southeast of the United States of America, the latest assessment could not establish the status of lobster stocks, as the results of the assessment models were rejected by an external review panel. However, new genetic data suggest that the southeast United States lobster population is highly dependent on external recruitment of postlarval lobsters from other spawning stocks throughout the Caribbean (SEDAR, 2010). However, Ehrhardt and Fitchett (2010) estimated that a significant proportion of recruitment was explained by the Floridian local population. This corroborates the conclusions of a CRFM working group that underlined that the spiny lobsters do not migrate over deep water as adults. Hence, there is a strong hypothesis that there are multiple distinct management units, although they might depend to an unknown extent on external recruitment (CRFM, 2009a). As a result, separate assessments were carried out by each Caribbean country.
In Jamaica, an assessment of the spiny lobster stock of Pedro Bank undertaken in 2009 with data until 2007 suggests the stock was not overfished and that current catches would not result in overfishing (CRFM, 2009a). These results were not conclusive, because of data limitations and poor reliability of the modelling results. However, a more recent assessment led to the recommendation that the current effort and catch  levels be closely monitored, as there is a potential danger for the fishery if the current levels are maintained (CRFM, 2010a).
In Belize, the lobster stock was assessed to be halfway between fully exploited and overexploited. The total biomass, spawning biomass and recruitment declined as a result of high fishing mortality (FAO, 2009a). Very similar results were found for the lobster stock in Nicaragua (FAO, 2009c) where fishing mortality was found to be too high and exploitation rates were not sustainable. An assessment undertaken within the CRFM for Turks and Caicos islands concluded that overfishing was occurring in 2005 and 2006. The assessment provided baseline information for determining a TAC (CRFM, 2007). An assessment of the spiny lobster fishery in Los Roques Archipelago in Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) with the PARFISH approach (Hoggarth et al., 2006) indicated that the stock was overexploited, and current biomass in 2008–09 was estimated at 14 percent of virgin biomass (Manzo, 2009).

Shrimp species

The main landed shrimp species in Nicaragua (Penaeus notialis, P. brasiliensis, Penaeus subtilis and Litopenaeus schmitti) were assessed to be fully exploited in 2008. A reduction in fishing effort was reported, mainly owing to increasing operating costs(FAO, 2009b). In Mexico, status differs among species. The brown shrimp (F. aztecus) stock was found to be fully exploited, with fishing effort decreasing and yield increasing. The red spotted shrimp (F. brasiliensis) and the rock shrimp (Sicyoria brevirostris) show signs of deterioration, as biomass has fluctuated in the last few years, but with a decreasing trend. The northern pink shrimp (P. duorarum) has suffered from excessive fishing effort in the past. Other factors affecting the species included illegal fishing, habitat loss and unfavourable environmental conditions. The combined effect of these factors has led to the current historical low catches. The stock was considered as being overexploited and a reduction of fishing effort was recommended. Seabob (Xiphopenaeus kroyeri) in Mexico seems fully exploited, although no biomass estimate is currently available (SAGARPA, 2010). In the main fishing countries, Suriname and Guyana, it appears to be neither overfished nor subject to overfishing (CRFM, 2009b). In the United States of America, the pink shrimp was classified among the overfished stocks in the South Atlantic (NMFS, 2011), whereas brown and white shrimps were found not to be overfished (Nance, 2010).
The shrimp trawl fishery in Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) has been closed since March 2009. Mendoza et al. (2009) analysed available information on landings of different taxonomic groups and their nominal fishing effort. This assessment examined the status of each group by fleet between 1970 and 2008 in eastern Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of). They estimated biomass trajectories, MSY and the fishing effort corresponding to MSY, thus providing retrospective information on the status of different stocks.
Except for the red spotted shrimp (Penaeus brasiliensis), all stocks analysed seemed to show signs of overfishing in 2008.

Associated species of shrimp trawl fishery

Signs of slight recovery in abundance were seen for whitemouth croaker (Micropogonias furnieri), king weakfish (Macrodon ancylodon)along the Orinoco Delta or the Jamaica weakfish (Cynoscion jamaicensis) on the Margarita-Sucre platform. However, the authors cautioned the use of the results, owing to considerations of data limitations and inconsistencies in the measurement of fishing effort.

Blue crab

Blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) sustains an important fishery in west Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) (Lake Maracaibo). Owing to the introduction of longlines in 2002, its landings increased steadily from 5 000 tonnes in 2001 to 10 500 tonnes in 2008.
Andrade de Pasquier et al. (2010) report a decrease in average size and an increase in the proportion of immature individuals in the catches. This indicates that there is a higher risk of overfishing caused by the use of longlines. These longlines are less selective than the pots that were used prior to 2002. On the other hand, recent assessments of the blue crab fishery in Florida waters indicated that the species was most probably not being overfished in the period 2002–05 (Murphy, McMillan-Jackson and Mahmoudi, 2007). Similarly, Callinectes spp. are estimated to be exploited at the MSY level in Mexico (SAGARPA, 2010).

Queen conch

As in the previous report period, the queen conch has shown signs of overexploitation where data are available. This is despite its inclusion in the CITES Appendix II list and the presence of rebuilding programmes. Several management measures are currently applied to the species, such as a cap on harvest, minimum legal size limit, and seasonal and spatial closures. In the United States of America, the queen conch was found to be subject to overfishing and overfished (NMFS, 2011). In Mexico, the stock was found to be in a deteriorating state (SAGARPA, 2010), although recovery signs were detected in protected areas (Cárdenas and Aranda, 2010). In Saint Lucia, an assessment made with data to 2008 shows that the abundance of the stock continues to decline. The stock is showing signs of overexploitation and this could lead to a collapse if no management action is taken (CRFM, 2009b). Recent surveys in the Bahamas indicate that the conch fisheries at Andros Island (Stoner and Davis, 2010) and on the Berry Islands bank are not sustainable (Stoner, Davis and Booker, 2009). In contrast, the stocks of Turks and Caicos Islands seem to be stable, with an acceptable level of biomass, although recent hurricanes Hanna and Ike are likely to have caused negative effects on this species (CRFM, 2010b). In Jamaica, catches of queen conch have decreased in recent years, as the national TAC (and individual quotas in the industrial fishery) has been reduced (Aiken et al., 2006). The stock seems to be neither overfished nor subject to overfishing. However, the lack of data made the results of the assessment not entirely satisfactory. Information is still badly needed in some regions for reliable assessment of the status of the stocks and there is significant concern over the continued illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing on Pedro Bank by foreign vessels.

American cupped oyster

American cupped oyster represents the most important fishery in the Gulf of Mexico in terms of landings, but is a low-valued species. In Mexico, catches of American cupped oyster have increased in recent years in Veracruz owing to an increase in fishing effort, whereas they have been stable in Tabasco. In Tamaulipas and Campeche, catches have decreased by more than 50 percent owing to unsatisfactory sanitary conditions, and this has prevented commercialization. Recently installed depuration plants have helped improve sanitary conditions and enabled the fishery to comply with required standards. The American cupped oyster is considered to be exploited at MSY in three provinces (Veracruz, Tabasco and Campeche) and underexploited in the province of Tamaulipas (SAGARPA, 2010). In the United States of America, historic low catches of American cupped oyster on the east coast led to an assessment to establish whether the species should be listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. However, the review team concluded that the species was not at risk (Eastern Oyster Biological Review Team, 2007).

Ark shell

In Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), no formal assessment exists for the expanding ark shell fishery, which has recently exceeded 70 000 tonnes. It has become the country’s most important fishery, but there is concern that these levels of exploitation may not be sustainable (Mendoza, personal communication).

Octopus species

In relation to octopus species in Mexico, Octopus maya is exploited at its MSY (SAGARPA, 2010). In contrast, some increases in the landings are believed to be possible for O. vulgaris, based mainly on the fact that the species is caught down to 36 m, whereas its habitat is likely to extend down to 150 m.

Coral reefs

Area 31 includes 10 percent of the world’s coral reefs, which have relatively low diversity but high endemicity (Burke et al., 2011). Coral cover has been declining for decades and, since the 1980s, a major cause has been the declining nearshore water
quality. Other factors affecting corals include the impact of diseases affecting many corals, as well as the long-spined sea urchin (Diadema antillarum). This urchin has an important ecological role as a herbivore on overfished coral reefs, but disease induced
massive mortalities of D. antillarum in 1983-1984 led to macro-algal blooms in many reef areas that still persist (Bellwood et al., 2004). The international Year of the Reef and the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium in 2008 provided the occasion for taking stock of the status of coral reefs around the world and of major initiatives that have been undertaken. Because of unusually high temperatures in 2005, the Caribbean was one of the regions reporting the highest levels of damage to coral reefs, owing to mass coral bleaching as well as hurricanes in 2005 and 2006 (Wilkinson and Souter, 2008).
Significant loss of hard coral cover from bleaching and disease outbreaks was recorded in the United States Virgin Islands and Florida, Puerto Rico, Cayman Islands, Sint Maarten, Saba, Sint Eustatius, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Barthélemy, Barbados,
Jamaica, Cuba, and Trinidad and Tobago. However, reefs at low risk are being still reported. These are either remote (Wider Caribbean) or well managed (Cuba) and signs of recovery have been detected in Florida and Jamaica. Nevertheless, the overall
situation is still fragile. The impact of projected climate changes (mainly elevated sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification and increased storm intensities) coupled with continuing harmful human activities such as overfishing, marine construction, sediment and nutrient pollution are a serious concern for the future of the reefs in Area 31. This concern led several Caribbean countries (the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) to pledge to conserve 20 percent of their marine and coastal habitats by 2010. This protection will occur through the Caribbean Challenge, with the support of the GEF, the Government of Germany, and the Nature Conservancy (Wilkinson, 2008). As of today, more than 75 percent of the reefs are considered threatened, with overfishing being one of the most important threats (Burke et al., 2011).

Seagrass beds

Information on seagrasses at the regional scale dates back to 2003, with a synthesis of the distribution and status of seagrass beds (Green and Short, 2003). This assessment indicated the presence of species, but did not provide details on the actual extent of seagrass beds. Research based on remotely sensed satellite images was initiated to fill this gap and has obtained promising results (Wabnitz et al., 2008). However, only preliminary results at very local scales are available so far.
Mangroves are among the important coastal habitats of ecological relevance to fisheries resources. Unlike in other parts of the world, the use of mangrove for fuel is not widespread in the Caribbean. Tourism, aquaculture, urban and coastal developments have each contributed to damaging the mangrove forests. It has been estimated that around 413 000ha of mangrove forests have been lost in Central America and the Caribbean between 1980 and 2000 at a rate of about 1% of total cover per annum (CARSEA, 2007). However, nature-based tourism (boat trips, birdwatching, sport fishing) is important enough to provide an economic incentive to protect mangroves in some areas. Several countries including the United States of America, Mexico and Cuba are showing considerable interest in mangrove protection (Spalding, Kainuma and Collins, 2010).

Invasive species

Another important feature in the region regards the spread of invasive species, such as the Indo-Pacific lionfish (Pterois  volitans), which is rapidly spreading throughout temperate and tropical Western Atlantic and Caribbean habitats. In several locations, lionfish abundances were described to be increasing quickly in past years (Morris et al., 2009). This invasive venomous species is generating concern as it is contributing to a deep change in the ecosystem, competing with native species and causing a reduction in the recruitment of native species (Ablins and Hixon, 2008). Lionfish is having negative effects on coral reefs, and control efforts are under way or under discussion. Studies are being undertaken throughout Area 31 to monitor the spreading of, and increase the knowledge on, the species.

Uncertainty about the status of many stocks in Area 31 has remained high, and the collection and processing of fisheries-related data can be substantially improved. However, some improvements were noted, as in the case of identification of sharks in Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) or more detailed reporting systems by Mexico. Compared with previous years, there has been no substantial increase in the number of assessments available in the region. The information available seems to vary from one year to the next, as assessments are still not undertaken on an annual basis.

Habitat Bio
Climatic Zone: Tropical.  

Water Area Overview
Spatial Scale: Regional

The area covered by the Western Central Atlantic Fisheries Commission (WECAFC) extends from Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, the United States of America (35°N), to just south of Cape Recife in Brazil (10°S). It includes an area of almost 15 million km2, of which approximately 1.9 million km2 is shelf area (Stevenson, 1981). The major subdivisions in this region are the southeast coast of the United States of America, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the northeast coast of South America, which includes the Guyanas (French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname) and Brazil.
The WECAFC area includes FAO Statistical Area 31 and a portion of Area 41 offshore of northern Brazil. This chapter deals only with Area 31 (Figure B3.1 and Table B3.1 ). The region is geographically one of the most complex regions of the world. It is split up into a number of deep ocean basins separated by shallow zones. There are also a large number of island platforms, offshore banks and the continental shelf.
The major island groups in Area 31 are the Bahamas and adjacent banks and islands.
These account for more than half of the islands and banks shelf area and include the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Hispaniola), and the Lesser Antilles (Stevenson, 1981).

Figure B3.1 The Western Central Atlantic (Area 31)

The North Equatorial Current flows west slightly north of the equator. It meets the Guiana Current before splitting in two branches: the Caribbean Current that enters the Caribbean Sea, and the Antilles Current that flows northwards along the Antilles and joins the Florida Current to form the Gulf Stream. The Caribbean Current flows northwest through the Caribbean Sea, with a number of meanders, filaments and eddies that show spatiotemporal variability. Eventually, the water flows through the Yucatan Channel into the Gulf of Mexico, where it becomes the Loop Current that flows clockwise through the Gulf of Mexico and through the Straits of Florida to become the Florida Current.
Freshwater discharges from the Mississippi, Orinoco and Amazon Rivers have an important influence on sediment discharge and ocean circulation in the region. The productivity of the waters is recognized to be influenced by these major rivers, even though the runoff is seasonal.
The productivity of the region is heterogeneous with alternating areas of high and low productivity. Areas of high productivity are typically the plumes of the main rivers, coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds. These last three are the coastal habitats of main interest, as they provide coastal protection against waves and storm surges. They also host the spawning and nursery grounds of a number of living marine species (Heileman, 2007). Seasonal upwelling is also a source of high productivity, especially between January and June in the southern Caribbean (Muller-Karger and Aparicio-Castro, 1994).

Water Area Overview
Aq Res Struct
Biological Stock: No

The WECAFC area has a high diversity of species, particularly around southern Florida,eastern Bahamas and northern Cuba. There is also a high level of species endemicity within the Caribbean. The Caribbean Sea has the highest level of species diversity in the tropical Atlantic and is considered a global hotspot of marine biodiversity (Roberts et al., 2002; Miloslavich et al., 2010). Species of interest to fisheries include molluscs, crustaceans (lobster, penaeid shrimps, crabs), coastal fishes occupying various substrata (soft bottom or reefs), large migratory fish species and deep-slope fish species.

Profile of Catches

The total landings in Area 31 increased steadily from about 0.5 million tonnes in 1950 to a peak of near 2.5 million tonnes in 1984. This was followed by a rapid decline between 1984 and 1992, and catches stabilized subsequently at about 1.5 million tonnes until 2003 (Figure B3.2). They then declined further to 1.3 million tonnes in 2009. This decrease is mainly due to the diminished catches of ISSCAAP Groups 33 (miscellaneous. coastal fishes that include groupers, snappers, mugilidae) and 35 (small pelagic fish, herrings, sardines and anchovies).
The proportion of non-identified species remained stable throughout the years (between 15 and 20 percent), indicating that no or limited progress was made in the identification of the species in the landings. ISSCAAP Group 39 (marine fishes not identified) accounted for 124 000 tonnes and 117 000 tonnes of the total landings in 2008 and 2009, respectively (about 10 percent of the catches).

Figure B3.2 Annual nominal catches by ISSCAAP species groups in the Western Central Atlantic (Area 31)

ISSCAAP Group 35 (herrings, sardines, anchovies) makes the largest contribution in the catches, with 44 percent of the total catches in Area 31 in 2009. This is mostly due to the Gulf menhaden (Brevoortia patronus) caught mainly by the United States of America. Catches of this species increased irregularly from about 200 000 tonnes in 1950 and reached a peak in 1984 at 1 million tonnes. After 1984, the catches declined, dropping to 433 000 tonnes in 1992. In recent years, the landings have been relatively stable, fluctuating between 450 000 tonnes and 500 000 tonnes, with a minimum recorded in 2005 at 370 000 tonnes (Figure B3.3). The most recent declines in landings are in part because of the active tropical storm season in 2004 and the two major hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, in 2005 that damaged vessels and processing plants (Vaughan, Shertzer and Smith, 2007). Atlantic menhaden (B. tyrannus) is the other species that used to be important in terms of landings in the United States of America. However, the fishery has experienced a continuous decline in catch in the last few years, reaching a historical low of 120 tonnes in 2009.

Figure B3.3 Annual nominal catches of selected species in ISSCAAP Group 35 in the Western Central Atlantic (Area 31)

Six families dominate the small pelagic catches from ISSCAAP Groups 35 (herrings, sardines, anchovies) and 37 (Other miscellaneous pelagic fishes): Exocetidae (flyingfishes); Clupeidae (herrings and sardines); Engraulidae (anchovies and anchovetas); Carangidae (jacks, bumpers and scads); and Hemiramphidae (halfbeaks).The round sardinella (Sardinella aurita) still accounts for important catches in weight. However, the landings show wide fluctuations, with a spectacular increase in the 1990s, reaching a maximum of 191 000 tonnes in 1998. This was followed by a steep decrease from 160 000 tonnes in 2002 to 37 000 tonnes in 2009, mostly reported by Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) (Figure B3.4). As for the previous years, the flathead grey mullet (Mugil cephalus), unidentified mullets and the Atlantic thread herring (Opisthonema oglinum) represent a significant proportion of the catches, accounting for 21 000 tonnes in 2009.
The flathead grey mullet catches decreased by nearly two-thirds from 16 700 tonnes in 1996 to 6 000 tonnes in 2009, and was only reported by Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) and Mexico.
The countries declaring Atlantic thread herring are mainly Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), Cuba and the United States of America. The landings show wide fluctuations in the last 15 years, with a minimum of 4 500 tonnes in 2002 and a maximum of 17 700 tonnes in 2004. The most recently reported catch was 9 000 tonnes in 2009. Whereas the Atlantic thread herring catches have fluctuated over the years, with successive high and low catches, those of the mullets show an overall decreasing trend in the last two decades.

Figure B3.4 Annual nominal catches of selected species in ISSCAAP Groups 33, 35 in the Western Central Atlantic (Area 31)

The catches of unidentified jacks and trevallies of the genus Caranx are reported mainly by Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago. They show a regular increase from 3 000 tonnes in 1950 to a maximum of 12 800 tonnes in 1997 and then a steep decrease from 12 400 tonnes in 2003 to 5 400 tonnes in 2009. This most recent decline was mainly due to a reduction in the landings declared by Mexico.
This decrease actually corresponds to a change in the reporting system in 2005, when Mexico started reporting blue runner (Caranx crysos). If the landings of Caranx spp. and Caranx crysos are summed, the trend actually shows fluctuations around an annual average of 10 800 tonnes in the period 2003–09. This illustrates that the changes are due to improved species  identification rather than any underlying change in the fishery or ecosystem.
The four-winged flyingfish (Hirundichthys affinis) is known to support important local fisheries in the eastern Caribbean for bait fish and human consumption. The landings statistics are poor, but were recently corrected for Barbados, Tobago, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Martinique and Dominica. These corrected catch statistics show landings fluctuating around 3 500 tonnes in the period 1985–2004.
This was followed by a decrease in the last few years when catches reached 2 500 tonnes (FAO, 2010). As for the common dolphinfish (Coryphaena hippurus), the countries reporting the highest catches recently have been Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), Barbados, France (Guadeloupe), Saint Lucia and the United States of America.
The catches of this species have increased regularly since the 1950s. They reached 4 500 tonnes in 1997, then decreased to 2 600 tonnes in 2005, before increasing again to more than 5 000 tonnes in 2009. Venezuelan catches accounted for one-third of the total in 2008 and 2009.
The ISSCAAP Group 33 (miscellaneous coastal fishes) continues to contribute a significant proportion of the landings (Figure B3.2). This group accounted for about 9 percent of the catches in the region in 2009. The species or families that contribute the most to this group are: marine catfishes (Ariidae); groupers, seabasses (Serranidae), especially the groupers (Epinephelus spp.); grunts, sweetlips (Haemulidae); snappers, jobfishes (Lutjanidae), especially the northern red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), the yellowtail snapper (Ocyrus chrysurus) and the vermilion snapper (Rhomboplites aurorubens), croakers, drums (Sciaenidae), especially the weakfishes (Cynoscion spp.) and the whitemouth croaker (Micropogonias furnieri); and the snooks (Centropomidae), especially the common snook (Centropomus undecimalis). Overall, the catches of this Group are lower than in the previous decade, despite a peak in 2003–05; the current catches are about 119 000 tonnes (Table D3).
The subdivision of the miscellaneous coastal fish (soft substrata and reef fishes) of the previous review (Cochrane, 2005) has been retained in this analysis. The sea catfish catches increased from 1950 reaching almost 30 000 tonnes in 2004 but then decreased sharply, dropping below 7 000 tonnes in 2009, only one-quarter of their 2004 peak (Figure B3.5).
The main fishing countries remain Mexico and Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of). The weakfish catches alternated between a peak of more than 19 000 tonnes in 2004 and a low of 9 000 tonnes in 2007, before increasing again to 13 000 tonnes in 2009. The 2009 catch corresponds to the average value in the period 1970–2009. Weakfish are mainly landed by Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) and to a lesser extent by Mexico and French Guiana.
Spotted weakfish (Cynoscion nebulosus) catches dropped significantly from more than 6 000 tonnes in 2002 to less than 400 tonnes in 2009. Similarly, landings of common snook decreased substantially from more than 9 000 tonnes in 2004 to 1 500 tonnes in 2009, mainly because of the decrease in the catches declared by Mexico. In contrast, unidentified snook catches in Mexico almost doubled from 2 000 tonnes in 2003 to more than 3 800 tonnes in 2009. This indicates deterioration in species identification of the reported catches. Although catches vary widely, whitemouth croaker catches have also demonstrated a clear decline from about 6 000 tonnes in 2004 to 2 700 tonnes in 2009 (Figure B3.5). This species is mainly fished by Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of).

Figure B3.5 Annual nominal catches of selected soft-bottom species, Western Central Atlantic (Area 31)

Catches of unidentified groupers show an important decreasing trend since their peak of 29 000 tonnes in 1981, reaching 7 000 tonnes in 2009. Red grouper (Epinephelus morio) landings have decreased more or less continuously from the maximum of 9 300 tonnes observed in 1970. However, the catches reported for red grouper only reflect landings by Cuba and the Dominican Republic and not those of the major producers in the region: Mexico and the United States of America. In Mexico average catches during the period 2002-2006 amount to about 6 500 tonnes (Burgos-Rosas et al. 2008) while in the USA for the same period the average was about 3 200 tonnes (SEDAR, 2009a).
Landings of unidentified snappers and jobfishes increased throughout the recording period until 1990 and then started showing wide oscillations. Despite the fluctuations, there seems to be a decreasing trend since the 1990s, with 8 000 tonnes being landed in 2009. Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), Mexico and the Dominican Republic are the countries that declare the highest landings of unidentified snappers and jobfishes.
The northern red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) and the lane snapper (L. synagris) landings show fluctuations throughout the period, with a decreasing trend since the early 1990s (Figure B3.6).
The decreasing trend for Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) has continued, with a minimum of 246 tonnes caught in 2009, most of which was declared by the Bahamas.
Nassau groupers have been severely depleted by fishing and the species was listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species in 2003. Many of the remaining spawning aggregations are protected; this may account for the decrease in the landings in recent years, among other things.
Vermillion snapper (Rhomboplites aurorubens) started to be declared in 1997, with an average of 800 tonnes per year until 2004.
However, in the last five years, the landings have reached an average of 3 700 tonnes per year. This is due mainly to the fact that Mexico started reporting higher landings in 2005, as well as to a slight increase in the catches of the United States of America. More than an increase in catches, this is probably due to an improved identification of the species and, hence, more correct reporting of the landings. This is also reflected in the statistics on other coastal species, such as yellowtail snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus), unidentified snappers and jobfishes, grey snapper (Lutjanus griseus), cubera snapper (Lutjanus cyanopterus), white grunt(Haemulon plumierii), unidentified snooks (Centropomus spp.), sea catfishes (Ariidae), unidentified porgies and seabreams (Sparidae). For example, Mexican landings show wide variations between 2004 and 2005, with some landings doubling or even tripling from one year to the next. This reallocation of the catches would explain why some species show a spectacular decline in 2005 in Mexico, as for example common snook (Centropomus undecimalis) (5 400 tonnes in 2004 to 20 tonnes in 2005).

Figure B3.6 Annual nominal catches of selected reef species in the Western Central Atlantic (Area 31)

The catches of the ISSCAAP Group 36 (tunas, bonitos and billfishes) fluctuate widely between years. The major species show a clear declining trend, although the starting year of the decline varies among species (Figure B3.7). The overall catch of the group averaged 87 000 tonnes in the 1990s and 71 000 tonnes in the 2000s. Yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) remains the most landed species. Two distinct periods could be identified while analysing the catches of this species: from 1950 to 1980, the catches increased up to a maximum of 28 000 tonnes in 1962, before decreasing to 6 400 tonnes in 1979. A notable increase occurred between 1980 and 1985 (33 500 tonnes) and then catches show an overall decrease until 2009, when they reached 12 700 tonnes.
The decrease is attributed to reduced fishing effort on yellowfin. However, in some areas, environmental conditions may have affected abundance (ICCAT, 2009). The albacore (Thunnus alalunga) catches have continued to decrease, falling from 10 000 tonnes in 2002 to 2 000 tonnes in 2009. This is probably because of a reduction in effort by the fleet from Taiwan Province of China. Skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) landings fluctuated, but with a decreasing trend, between 3 700 tonnes in 2002 and 3 000 tonnes in 2009. The main fishing countries are Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) and, to a lesser extent, Cuba. The Atlantic bonito (Sarda sarda) landings increased regularly from the 1950s, reaching a maximum of 4 700 tonnes in 1994. Landings then started decreasing, reaching 1 600 tonnes in 2009, when the catches were mainly reported by Mexico.

Figure B3.7 Annual nominal catches of selected species in ISSCAAP Group 36 in the Western Central Atlantic (Area 31)

The coastal large pelagic catches are dominated by the same species as in previous years: king mackerel (Scomberomorus cavalla), declared mainly by Mexico, the United States of America, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) and Trinidad and Tobago; Atlantic Spanish mackerel (Scomberomorus maculatus), in Mexico and the United States of America; serra Spanish mackerel (Scomberomorus brasiliensis) in Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) and Trinidad and Tobago; and cero (Scomberomorus regalis), (Figure B3.8).
The catches of all four species are characterized by wide fluctuations. In the last few years, there seems to be an overall decreasing trend for Atlantic Spanish mackerel, with catches as low as 6 700 tonnes in 2009. There has been an overall increasing trend for king mackerel since records began. In 2009, the catches of king mackerel and serra Spanish mackerel were 10 600 tonnes and 4 100 tonnes, respectively. The recorded Cero catches show low values in the years 2000s compared to the 1990s. Catches fluctuated around an average of 50 tonnes in the period 2002–09. In light of the most recent landings statistics, it appears that landings of cero have a totally different pattern compared with the historical data (1950–1984).
The 1990s and 2000s were characterized by a sharp decrease in landings, and the most recent catches represent only 5 percent of what the catches used to be at the time of the historical maximum of 800 tonnes in the 1960s and 1970s. The species has been reported only by the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico since then.

Figure B3.8 Annual nominal catches of selected species in ISSCAAP Group 36 in the Western Central Atlantic (Area 31)

After an overall increase until the mid-1990s, the catches of ISSCAAP Group 38 (sharks, rays, chimaeras) seem to have been decreasing since 1994. Yet, in 2004, the catches suddenly increased and reached a historical peak at 39 600 tonnes (Figure B3.9). The 2004 peak seems to be due mainly to an increase in catches of requiem sharks by Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) (catches increased by more than twofold between 2002 and 2004).
Larger catches of unidentified rays, stingrays and mantas were also reported by Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) and the ISSCAAP Group 38 landings from Guyana.

Figure B3.9 Annual nominal catches of selected species in ISSCAAP Group 38 in the Western Central Atlantic (Area 31)

The Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) catches decreased from 34 000 tonnes in 2002 to 24 000 tonnes in 2009 (Figure B3.10). Caribbean spiny lobster landings are declared by 26 countries, but Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba and the Bahamas together accounted for 70 percent of the catches in Area 31 in 2009.
The spiny lobster stocks are known to be under heavy exploitation in the region and to have been depleted in some areas. The fact that landings have been maintained at reasonably constant levels up until recently probably reflects the fact that fisheries in some countries have progressively extended to deeper waters, for example Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua.In the same period, landings of unidentified penaeid shrimps dropped from a peak of more than 50 000 tonnes in 2003 and 2004 to 25 000 tonnes in 2009. The northern brown shrimp (Penaeus aztecus) and the northern white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus) are the two most productive shrimp species, with similar landings of more than 55 000 tonnes in 2009 (Figure B3.10). However, they seem to show opposite trends over recent years, with an increase for the northern white shrimp and a decrease for the northern brown shrimp. Both species are mainly reported by the United States of America. The trend in Atlantic seabob (Xiphopenaeus kroyeri) landings seems to have reversed in – after a continuous increase until 2001 (38 000 tonnes), the catches decreased continuously to 26 000 tonnes in 2009. The bulk of the landings are reported by Guyana and Suriname, with more than 90 percent of the catches of Area 31. Landings of northern pink shrimp declined more or less continuously from when they peaked at 22 000 tonnes in 1978 to 4 000 tonnes in 2009. Catches by the United States of America have accounted for about 70 percent of the total.

Figure B3.10 Annual nominal catches of selected species in ISSCAAP Groups 43, 45 in the Western Central Atlantic (Area 31)

Among the molluscs landed, oysters remain the main catches of the group in Area 31. The most important is the American cupped oyster (Crassostrea virginica), which is declared by the United States of America and Mexico. The landings halved from the historical peak of 195 000 tonnes in 2000 to 84 000 tonnes in 2009, owing to a sharp decline in the United States landings. Production of ark clams (Arca spp.) shows a continuous increase throughout the period of record collection and reached a historical maximum at 71 000 tonnes in 2009, mainly reported by Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of).
Although catches of stromboid conchs (Strombus spp.) fluctuate widely, they appear to have declined since their historical maximum of 40 000 tonnes in 1995 down to 23 000 tonnes in 2009 (Figure B3.11). This apparent decline is partly in response to the listing of queen conch (Strombus gigas) on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1992. This listing has controlled its export and enabled national management efforts to reduce harvests. The countries declaring the highest landings are Mexico, Jamaica, Turks and Caicos Islands, Belize, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, but conchs are also declared by a number of other countries. Landings of common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) have shown important interannual fluctuations in the last five years between a maximum of 24 000 tonnes in 2004 and a minimum of 7 000 tonnes in 2005. The most recently reported catch was 17 000 tonnes in 2009, which was mainly caught by Mexico. Landing of Mexican four-eyed octopus (Octopus maya) have been reported since 2005. They account for one-third of octopus catches in Mexico, with an average of 5 400 tonnes per year.

Figure B3.11 Annual nominal catches of common octopus and stromboid conchs in the Western Central Atlantic (Area 31)

Reported landings of turtles decreased steadily from 2002 and practically disappeared from the statistics in 2009. Landings of green turtle (Chelonia mydas) decreased from 14 tonnes in 2002 to 1 tonne in 2008, but no landings were reported in 2009. All of the Caribbean Sea turtle species are considered endangered or critically endangered (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) and all are listed on Appendix I of CITES, preventing export trade in these species.
An interesting feature is the recent inclusion of unidentified sea cucumbers (Holothurioidea) in the landings. These are mainly reported by Nicaragua, and show that 5 tonnes were caught in 2006 and 720 tonnes in 2009. This is despite an indication that the fishery has been operating since 1994 (Toral-Granda, 2008). This increase in reported landings is probably due to new markets for this group opening up in China.

Management unit: No

A number of institutional arrangements promote and facilitate the responsible utilization of the fisheries and other aquatic resources within Area 31. Each organization has a different geographical coverage and mandate: Western Central Atlantic Fisheries Commission (WECAFC) of FAO, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM), the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council (CFMC), the Latin American Organization for Fishery Development (OLDEPESCA), the Central American Organization for the Fisheries and Aquaculture Sector (OSPESCA), the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The different institutions within Area 31 adapt to the informal arrangements that are agreed upon by these arrangements.
Some of them take the lead in the assessment and management of particular fisheries resources. For example, the WECAFC undertakes the assessment for shrimp, groundfish and flyingfish, the CRFM for other regional pelagics, conch, lobster and shrimp, and OSPESCA for lobster resources (Fanning and Mahon, 2011). However, despite the relatively large number of existing arrangements, information that can be used for management purposes still needs to be improved in Area 31. The launching of the Caribbean Large Marine Ecosystem (CLME) Project (Web site: funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in 2009 will probably provide valuable assistance to the Caribbean countries to improve the knowledge on and the management of their shared fisheries resources.


Overall catches have declined since 1984. This is probably at least partly the result of overfishing. In some cases, it is also probably due to improved responses by management to overfishing risks, thereby limiting catches. This is despite management authorities often being slow to act on scientific advice. Although overall productivity in terms of biomass may be low in the Area, the value and value per capita will probably make these resources more important in terms of socio-economic contributions at the local and national level. For example, fish resources supplying local markets for tourists in the Lesser Antilles and other tourist destinations in the Area fetch high prices.
Despite these improvements in fisheries management, a number of species still suffer from overexploitation. Moreover, coastal habitat destruction through tourism, pollution and urban development is commonly reported. These factors have led to overall ecosystem degradation, especially of coral reefs and associated fisheries (Burke et al., 2011). Yet, these habitats are the basis of small-scale fisheries that have important economic, social and cultural roles in Area 31. It should be noted that this review is based on the species that are predominant in the landings reported by the countries in the Area. Therefore, it focuses on relatively large-scale fisheries owing to their higher relative contribution to those landings. Thus, it may not correctly reflect the status of the species targeted by the artisanal fisheries that dominate the insular Caribbean. Small countries with relatively low populations usually declare low nominal catches and, thus, are easily overlooked. This is particularly the case where very limited landing and stockstatus information is available for those countries. However, effort levels in some insular Caribbean countries show high fishing pressure on near shore ecosystems (Dunn et al., 2010). In the future, the per capita consumption of fish, as well as trade information (exports and imports) should be used to identify those countries that deserve additional attention. Efforts should be concentrated in these countries to improve the quality of data and information or undertake data collection. Moreover, the analysis of the trends of the landings should be made taking into account the context of global economy and in particular the evolution of fuel prices, as they influence directly the level of fishing in the absence of fuel subsidies for the fisheries sector (Sumaila et al., 2008).

Marine and Inland Fisheries Service, Fisheries and Aquaculture Resources Use and Conservation Division. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department “Review of the state of world marine fishery resources” FAO FISHERIES AND AQUACULTURE TECHNICAL PAPER. No. 569. Rome, FAO. 2011. Click to open

The bibliographic references are available through the hyperlink displayed in "Source of Information".


The article beneficiated from constructive suggestions provided by H. Oxenford, P. Medley and J. Mendoza who are gratefully acknowledged for their inputs. Warm thanks to all those who provided useful information and documentation: J. Alió, F. Arocha, F. Blanchard, M.-J. Cardenas, F. Carocci, K. Cochrane, P. Fanning, A. Flores, L. Garibaldi, R. Lee, D. Lopez Sánchez, S. Lluch-Cota, J. Lopez, A. Mena Millar, D. Milton, R. Puga, L. Reynal, S. Singh-Renton, Y. Ye. The participants in the fifth session of the WECAFC Scientific Advisory Group are also thanked for their comments: A. Acosta, R. Appeldoorn, N. Cummings, P. Debels, M. Haughton, L. Martínez, P. McConney, M. Perez Moreno, S. Salas Márquez, J.-C. Seijo, R. Van Anrooy.

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