Offshore bottom fishermen love groupers, mostly because they are so good to eat.
They are generally attractive, too, but they often leave anglers scratching their heads because there are so many species.
One of those that is just rare enough for the average fishermen to be unable to identify at first glance but common enough to turn up occasionally in catches is the speckled hind: Epinephelus drummondhayi.
It is one of three species of Gulf groupers whose bodies are covered with small speckles — the other two being the red hind and the rock hind.
How these three members of the grouper family came to be called “hinds” instead of groupers is a mystery to me for which I have never found an explanation.
Most fishermen lump them together (which you will see is risky) as “one of those speckled groupers,” or strawberry or calico groupers. The commercial fishermen’s nickname for the speckled hind is “Kitty Mitchell.”
The story is that the proprietress of a bawdy house in a Florida fishing community was particularly fond of the fish as table fare and would trade commercial fishermen fresh from the sea her companionship for the fish.
So the fish was named for her.
The speckled hind can be separated from the other two species of hinds by the fact that it has light speckles on a dark body, whereas the other two species have dark speckles on a lighter body.
Its background body color is usually described as reddish-brown in books, but I have seen specimens that were distinctly greenish or gray. Very small fish — those less than 9 inches long — have a yellow body color but are still white-speckled.
It’s a good thing that it’s easy to identify (remember the part about risk) because the limit on the fish is one per boat.
Not one per person — one per boat.
Getting caught with more onboard will result in a hefty penalty.
The species is considered severely overfished. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List shows it as “critically endangered,” one step away from “extinct.”
The speckled hind grows substantially larger than either red or rock hinds. The Louisiana state record is a 32-pounder caught by Blake Matherne in 2010. The IGFA world record is a 52-pound, 8-ounce brute caught off Florida.
It is considered a deepwater grouper, along with snowy, yellowedge and Warsaw groupers. The speckled hind is most common in waters 200 to 600 feet deep, although it occasionally ranges into waters as shallow as 80 feet.
Its range is primarily the Gulf of Mexico, although they are found up the south Atlantic coast as far as North Carolina, and an outlier (and probably non-spawning) population is in Bermuda waters.
It is absent from the Caribbean.
Like most other groupers, it shows a preference for rocky bottoms. Unlike with snowy and yellowedge groupers, many Louisiana catches of speckled hinds are made near oil and gas platforms. There, they eat a typical grouper diet: fish, shrimp, and crabs — in short, any living thing they can suck into their big mouths.
Like most if not all other groupers, the speckled hind is a protogynous hermaphrodite, meaning each fish starts life as a female and at some later stage in its life, changes sex to male.
A comprehensive study of the fish done on the Atlantic coast published in 2008 as a master’s thesis showed a sex ratio of one male for every three females. Females dominated the population in numbers until age 9 and 26 inches in length. After that, males increased in number.
Of the 1,365 fish in the study, the smallest mature female was 15.6 inches long. The smallest mature male was 20 inches.
Fish in transitional stages, with reproductive organs changing from female to male, were found between 18 and 29 inches long, and 3 to 7 years old.
This gender-bending and the long life-span (at least 35 and perhaps as long as 80 years) makes this species difficult to manage for recovery from overfished status.
Larger groupers beat out smaller groupers for baited hooks, so are more quickly caught. As a result, scientists suspect there are not enough male groupers to effectively fertilize all the eggs females produce.
Compounding that, as male groupers are fished out, larger females begin changing to males at an earlier age. Larger females, of course, each produce more eggs than smaller females.
Traditional regulations such as minimum sizes and closed seasons, won’t work in an effort to restore this species. Because they live in deep water, when they are reeled to the surface, they suffer from “catastrophic decompression syndrome” (CDS).
Their swim bladders overexpand, damaging internal organs. Their eyes bulge out of their sockets and actually crack, they experience blood vessel hemorrhages, their stomach is pushed out of their mouths and they lose the ability to keep themselves in swimming position.
Even if they don’t die directly from CDS, fish affected by it are trapped at the water’s surface and helpless against predators.
That means size limits won’t help the species recover because released undersized fish will likely not survive. The same is the case with closed seasons and quotas: Fishermen will continue to incidentally catch speckled hinds while fishing for other species.
A complete closure of the deepwater bottom fishery for all species — something that is not likely to happen, politically — is the only completely effective solution to help the species recover.
Short of that, only marine protected areas might offer some relief. MPAs, essentially national parks on the water, would allow speckled hind (and other fish) to build populations that resemble unfished populations.
Some biologists have estimated that the amount of spawning-age speckled hinds (measured in pounds) is only 2 percent of what was in 1973.
By most accounts, the population is overfished and still experiencing overfishing.
The fly in the ointment is that most scientists are quick to note that the fish has not been adequately studied. And fishermen are still catching them in numbers that haven’t changed in anyone’s memory.