How Many Countries Does it Take to Save a Fish?

All of them—which makes conservation difficult when your neighbors keep poaching.

Published July 11, 2017

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She swam to Northeast Point when her eggs were ripe. Ripe as the winter moon that shone into the sea, compelling her to leave the neighborhood where she spent most of her year alone on the reef. About half a meter long, the large predator joined hundreds of her kind to migrate more than 100 kilometers across deep open water to a submerged rocky outcrop. For as long as anyone could remember, her ancestors have aggregated here; no one knows how her species first found the spawning ground. Other females and males streamed into the sheltered elbow in the promontory, settling into sandy grooves and coral spurs. They waited for the sun to set.

Like the Nassau grouper aggregating below the surface, we, too, are governed by the movements of the moon and the sun—and the satellite coordinates displayed on the GPS unit at the research vessel’s helm. There are seven of us on board, five suited up to dive. We turn east toward a break in the reef, toward Northeast Point. Each swell moves like a wall toward the bow of the seven-meter skiff. We are still in Belizean waters but, through a trick of geography, only an hour or so from Honduras and Guatemala, the neighboring countries that cradle the southern side of the Gulf of Honduras. Belize City, by contrast, where the coast guard and the fisheries department’s Conservation Compliance Unit are headquartered, is at least three times as far by water.

Randolph “Buck” Nunez, a local fisher turned boat captain for the Epinephelust, stands at the helm, large feet planted solidly in his flip-flops. I stand up and quickly sit down again, unable to keep my balance. He scans the horizon. Nothing. Just a small lighthouse to the west and the pale ghost of a white cargo ship in the distance.

But the sea plays tricks out here. Fishers in a boat cresting the large waves on the high seas would see us before we saw them. Nunez kicks the engines into gear to ride another swell. He looks west again. “Sometimes, when we come from that side, from Lighthouse Alley, you smell fumes of gasoline and see two boats heading out,” he says. Boats that may be entering the country illegally, from Honduras or Guatemala, to steal the very fish that the scientist-divers on this vessel have come to study and help protect.

Roughly 15,000 Nassau grouper once gathered at Northeast Point to spawn—now scientists are lucky to see a few hundred. Photo by Doug Perrine/SeaPics.com

The Epinephelust is nearly an hour away from her homeport at Glover’s Reef Research Station, a remote outpost on Glover’s Reef atoll operated by the New York-headquartered Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The global nonprofit funds research and policy in some 40 countries and spent more than US $100-million on global conservation in 2016 alone. At Glover’s Reef, the WCS supports the staff scientists now aboard the Epinephelust and visiting researchers who travel from all over the world to study these waters. It also hosts national fisheries rangers and members of the coast guard, the enforcers who police and protect Belize’s substantial network of marine protected areas. As the WCS well knows, the stakes are high. Success or failure of Belize’s marine conservation program has global significance. This tiny country of roughly 360,000 is the unlikely steward of 80 percent of the Mesoamerican Reef, which includes Northeast Point and Glover’s Reef, the world’s largest barrier reef after Australia’s Great Barrier.

Northeast Point, our destination, doesn’t look like much: just another patch of dark blue. There is no “point” of land visible from the boat. It lurks more than 25 meters below. Less than a century ago, Nassau grouper would have streamed into a site like this (at a stately pace of less than two kilometers per hour) by the tens of thousands—their numbers peaking over just a few days following the full moons of winter. Divers lucky enough to witness the spawning event itself—a roiling, dense ball of fish, milt, and egg—call it one of the great wonders of the natural world. Other species aggregate to spawn, but no other Caribbean fish does it so dramatically in such concentrated space and time.

Spawning in aggregate is a strategy that worked for most of the species’ evolutionary history. The fish probably chose offshore sites like this—hard to reach, with deep, swift waters—because they conferred some evolutionary advantage. There may be something about the way the currents sweep into the V-shaped corner of rocky reef, creating eddies that carry eggs away from the promontory. Amassing here may have made the fish less vulnerable to predators, such as yellowtail snapper with a taste for grouper eggs. But it also made them far more vulnerable to two-legged predators.

For decades, this unassuming patch of blue has been the object of intense scrutiny and struggle, above and below the surface. Research at Northeast Point provided the impetus for Belize to create some of the world’s most comprehensive protections for aggregation sites and the remarkable creatures that spawn there. But poachers now profit from Belize’s carefully crafted protections, raiding the remote Northeast Point under the cover of night, flouting Belizean law. When undefended, the site makes an attractive target for Belize’s two fish-poor neighbors: Honduras has eaten up most of its own stocks; and Guatemala’s sandy, silty coast doesn’t offer the right habitat for Nassau grouper aggregations. Here, an endangered species is fighting for its life, while local fishers struggle to preserve theirs.


Her relatives arrived at the site in their characteristic black-and-white markings, resembling a pack of zebras as they meandered through a savannah of soft corals that swayed in the surge. As the day waned, many of them lost their bars and changed their patterns to a solid, eye-catching dark gray or black. Their bellies had become bright white, as if they’d dressed for dinner—a signal, perhaps, that they were ready to begin the mating dance.

For the better part of the 20th century, Nassau grouper constituted one of the most valuable fisheries in the Caribbean. Just as images of cod can be found throughout Boston and Nantucket is adorned with whales—both symbols of prosperity—Nassau grouper feature prominently in Caribbean art. Cuba and the Bahamas even put them on their postage stamps.

The Nassau grouper’s range extends from the Gulf of Mexico throughout the Caribbean Sea. Data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. Illustration by Mark Garrison

Still, flesh is flesh. Humans draw pictures of these glassy-eyed and big-lipped pouty fish not because of their looks, but because they have been so good to bellies and wallets. Though many Belizeans will tell you that grouper is the best eating fish—a conviction that is borne out on local restaurant menus, which advertise snapper and grouper even when it is unlikely the kitchen is cooking either species—most would be hard-pressed to distinguish a skinned Nassau grouper fillet from that of any other mild, white-fleshed fish. The real reason fishermen pursue the species is because it has been so easy to catch at an aggregation site.

In Hopkins, a fishing village to the west of Glover’s Reef on the mainland, where Nunez grew up and still lives, spawning aggregation sites like Northeast Point were a boon, providing a lucrative catch that started in December, just before Christmas when a family most needed the extra money. Once you knew how to find Northeast Point, you were set: the fish came back to the same place at the same time, year after year.

The fishing was easy because the oversexed animals bite at anything: each other (it seems to be part of the courtship) and the bait lowered on iron sinkers into the deep water: grunts, snappers, conchs. In five minutes, you could pull up two fish on one hook. And they’d keep biting out of the water; Jose Mario Verde Sr., a former fisher, says they would even nip his T-shirt.

This short clip shows Nassau grouper at Little Cayman releasing a cloud of eggs and milt into the water. Video by Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation

Verde grew up in Sarteneja, a fishing village in northern Belize near the Mexican border, and used to fish for grouper at another famously abundant spawning bank, Emily Caye, where Jacques Cousteau filmed thousands of grouper around the same time Verde started fishing in the 1970s. Verde remembers how blistered and stiff his hands would get during the grouper season from running meters of cotton line through his bare palms after paddling out to the spawning aggregation in a small wooden dugout.

“When the weather was cooperating, I used to catch 40 to 50 dozen fish under the full moon. In one trip,” he recalls when I sit down with him at his dive shop. “It was pretty easy for us fishermen because we had an abundance of catch. The prices were a little bit lower than now, but the quantity was good.”

Easy to catch, easy to overfish. By the 1980s, stocks throughout the Caribbean were in acute decline, declared commercially extinct in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands where they had once been valuable fisheries. Verde could see where his future was headed. It was taking more effort to catch the same number of fish, and the fish were getting smaller. It was getting harder and harder to support his family.

“We used to take as much as we could,” he says, shaking his head. He just thought he had a good fishing spot. By 1984, the Nassau grouper fishery was showing signs of collapse. Verde gave up fishing and retrained as a tour operator through a government program. He now works on Caye Caulker, a popular backpacker destination, where he leads snorkeling and diving trips on the reef so tourists can gawk at the same animals he used to catch.

Among scientists and conservationists, the Nassau grouper story is now a classic example of spawning aggregation collapse and a cautionary tale. More than a third of the 69 historical Nassau grouper aggregations documented in the Science and Conservation of Fish Aggregations database now have “unknown” status, meaning they have likely been wiped out. And of the 41 aggregations still actively surveyed, only three have not declined or disappeared.

Illustration by Mark Garrison

As the sun hung low in the sky, hundreds of her kin rose up from the spurs and grooves of the promontory and then descended again into the deep water, schooling in a dense ball. She shot upward in a spiral through the aggregation, half a dozen males following close behind. With a quick shake of her tail, she released her eggs, and the males their milt. The fish quickly rejoined the aggregation below. More subgroups erupted, males chasing females. Soon, so many were bursting from the school that it was impossible to distinguish one from the next. Now the aggregation resembled one dark, exploding ball, white clouds of egg and sperm slowly rising above the roiling mass.

Belize was galvanized into action in the early 2000s, not long after Spanish marine ecologist Enric Sala and two coauthors published a 2001 paper predicting the Nassau grouper fishery at Northeast Point would be wiped out by 2009 and a national survey commissioned by the Nature Conservancy revealed that Belize’s other aggregations were also in a parlous state. “It really was an eye-opener,” recalls Janet Gibson, former country program director for the WCS. Less than a quarter of the sites had aggregations in the thousands; the rest had very few or no fish at all.

Gibson, along with other researchers, government officials, fishers, and conservationists formed the Belize National Spawning Aggregation Working Group (SPAG). Based on its recommendations, then-fisheries minister Daniel Silva quickly signed legislation to make fishing at 11 spawning sites illegal in 2002. Recognizing that many other fish, such as snapper, aggregate at the same sites to spawn, Belize closed the sites year round—not just during the Nassau grouper spawning season. This was considered especially enlightened at the time. It still is. Later, the working group convinced legislators to create additional protections for Nassau grouper landed outside the protected sites between April and November, when the fishery opens. Fishers must land Nassau grouper whole, and they must be Goldilocks-sized: if the fish are too small, they won’t have had a chance to reach maturity and reproduce; if they’re too big, they’re the megaspawners—the most productive adults.

Before Nassau grouper stocks dwindled and Belize enacted a fishing ban, villagers from Hopkins relied on fish caught from spawning aggregation sites as a source of extra income. Photo by Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo

Belize now controls some of the last viable Nassau grouper spawning aggregation sites in the world. (The others are in the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands.) Stewardship is still largely driven by the working group, which deploys dozens of researchers to seven of the protected spawning sites to continue to monitor and inform the country’s conservation strategies. The fact that Belize still has any Nassau grouper is a major achievement, given how drastically their populations have fallen elsewhere. There have been some successes: Emily Caye, where Verde once fished, is reporting numbers in the thousands. But numbers fluctuate wildly from year to year and even dive to dive—especially at Northeast Point, which is one of Belize’s most remote aggregation sites and one that is vulnerable to poaching.

The aggregation got noisier as spawning intensified. Her swim bladder vibrated, issuing mating calls in a deep baritone. Night fell. Lights appeared at the surface and a line dropped into the water. She swam toward the bait. Her last ascent was quick, too quick for her to adjust to the pressure change. By the time she reached the surface, her distended swim bladder was hanging out of her mouth. The fisher punctured it with a small metal straw and added her to the boat’s watery hold.


At Northeast Point, Nunez quickly turns the Epinephelust sideways to the waves. Virginia Burns Perez, who leads the SPAG efforts at Glover’s Reef, and her boss, Alexander Tewfik, head scientist for the WCS in Belize, perch on the gunwale, waiting for the go-ahead from Nunez. It’s the first dive of the 2017 season, and the tension among the divers is palpable. Back in the 1970s, the site harbored 15,000 fish, but by the time of the 2002 moratorium there were fewer than 3,000. In 2015, aggregation numbers fell to an all-time low of 450 fish. It’s human nature to fear the worst.

“Times are changing,” says Perez grimly. “So let’s see what’s happening.”

The pair rolls backward into the water. Nunez hands Tewfik an underwater video camera jury-rigged with lasers for sizing the fish. And then they are gone, the sea closing over their heads as they begin their long descent. Glassy pools form on the surface, the only indication that anyone is down there. Poachers aren’t typically brazen enough to approach the site while scientists are diving, but Nunez scans the horizon anyway.

Glover’s Reef and surrounding islands are part of the Mesoamerican Reef, the world’s second largest barrier reef. Photo by National Geographic Creative/Alamy Stock Photo

Last year, when the scientists came to Northeast Point for the first dive of the 2016 season, the water column was relatively thick with fish. Since Nassau grouper numbers usually peak a few days into the monitoring window, the SPAG crewmembers were optimistic: they expected to find more grouper on subsequent dives. Instead, they found it eerily empty. A lone grouper swam past them with a hook in its mouth, trailing fishing line. There was other evidence of illegal fishing, too: a couple of anchors and discarded lights that poachers use to attract the fish. “They must have hammered the site,” says Perez. Belize’s Conservation Compliance Unit, which enforces fishing regulations and prosecutes violations, later confirmed what the scientists suspected: Nassau grouper was being sold in Honduras.

While the occasional Belizean fisher will try his luck at Northeast Point under the cover of night, many Nassau grouper poachers seem to have ties to Guatemala and Honduras. Most of the fishing equipment found on patrols at the site—hooks, lines, and such—are not Belizean. Boats observed on the horizon are bigger and faster than the local skiffs that typically fish the area. And here lies the terrible irony: the relative success of Belize’s conservation management strategy may be the very thing that has made it a target for its fish-poor neighbors. Honduras was still exporting the species to the United States as late as 2005, even though its sites were probably in worse shape than Belize’s. Its spawning aggregation sites are a black box to researchers: the country doesn’t collect or share data on its Nassau grouper fisheries. But when Nassau grouper show up at markets in aggregation-poor areas such as Puerto Cortés, at the height of spawning season, chances are they came from Belize.


At 30 meters, Northeast Point comes into focus for Tewfik and Burns. They and the rest of the SPAG team begin their census, counting 300 or so animals—a gathering that would have once been considered sparse. But numbers are relative, and the baseline for abundance has changed significantly since the site was first surveyed. University of British Columbia fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly famously calls this “shifting baseline syndrome”—as population numbers dip ever lower for certain species, we tend to adjust our expectations for what a healthy population might be. A month later, researchers will be nostalgic for even 300 fish when the aggregation dips to its lowest in recorded history: 138.

Tewfik says it’s rare to see the spawning fish form a dense ball at Northeast Point now. This may partly be a function of timing: night travel is dangerous on the shallow reef, and scientists must surface before it gets too dark. But he and his colleagues also suspect that aggregation numbers must be high enough to trigger the balling behavior. He worries that Northeast Point’s numbers may be on the verge of dipping too low, and that this might drive down the rate of reproduction even further.

Nassau grouper have evolved to form tight clusters during mating, to increase their chances of success. But those same aggregations make them an easy target for poachers. Photo by Doug Perrine/SeaPics.com


On another afternoon in January 2017, when it is too windy to dive safely at Northeast Point, we dock the Epinephelust at a small eco-resort on Long Caye, not far from the research station. Dale Wesby, who works as a divemaster for the WCS and grew up on the lagoon with its 800 patch reefs as his playground, leads me past the resort’s tidy cabanas and well-swept white sandy paths lined with glossy pink conch shells to a fishing camp hidden in the jungly overgrowth.

The two-story wooden shack Wesby’s great-grandfather built is falling apart: wood rotting, paint peeling. The tall midden of conch shells piled up beside it feels more permanent. Fishers from Hopkins are setting up at the communal camp. They plan to spend several nights there before returning to their village.

We find Alfonso Nunez (a cousin of Buck’s) standing at a wooden table cleaning the day’s catch. Triggerfish, porgies, snappers, hinds all get the same treatment: gutted and filleted to be sold for a few dollars a pound. The same fish that were so vibrant and colorful just hours ago are now reduced to monochrome. They are flesh to be dissected. Alfonso cleans the fillets quickly, throwing them into a bucket of water as he goes. He throws the guts back into the lagoon, and gluttonous magnificent frigate birds plunge in after them.

Alfonso started fishing about 15 years ago, after the Northeast Point site had been closed. I ask him what he thinks of the closed season when the animals are spawning. “Too long,” he says. “Everybody says that.” Like many fishers, he is frustrated by the rules, which can seem to punish the locals who actually follow them. “Do you have anybody taking care of the grouper bank right now?” He turns to Wesby, asking him to answer for the fisheries rangers and coast guard stationed at Glover’s Reef. Wesby shakes his head. Alfonso throws another bloody fillet into the bucket with a jerk of his wrist. “That’s what I’m saying.”

Nassau grouper display various color phases, including the typical barred coloration shown here. During mating, many temporarily become bicolored—dark on top with a white belly. Photo by Image Source/Alamy Stock Photo

“The grouper bank is closed, but we don’t have enforcement to manage it. That’s my problem,” Alfonso says. “Belizeans don’t fish there…. They’re saving the grouper for Guatemalans and Honduranians. It’s not in our best interest.” It’s an issue, he says, that comes up at the Hopkins Fishermen Association and when he meets other skiffs in the lagoon. As if fishing wasn’t hard enough already. He and his crew of three might catch 180 to 230 kilograms of fish on a three-day fishing trip; if the grouper bank were open, they could catch the same amount—or more—in one night, provided there were still fish to catch.


Fisheries rangers have been tasked with conducting special patrols of Northeast Point since 2008. The rangers in Belize are unusual in that they have the power to arrest and prosecute violators of the fishing regulations, which makes them far more powerful than many of their colleagues in neighboring countries. Foreigners can, theoretically, be arrested and charged for illegal entry as well as illegal fishing. But this does not always mean that it is safe to do so.

Sites like Northeast Point, which attract international poachers, are especially risky to patrol. “A lot of these people who are coming over are well-armed,” says Beverly Wade, administrator for the national fisheries department. “There’s an intermingling of fisheries and the drug trade.” The rangers, wary of engaging with poachers, made only two arrests at the aggregation site last year.

As back up, the fisheries department enlisted help from the coast guard this year. “Our people aren’t military people,” explains Wade. “They are not trained to be engaged in combat.” Not only is the coast guard better trained in security operations, its officers also carry semi-automatic M4 carbines, which are much more powerful than the rangers’ nine-millimeter handguns.

Poaching is an ongoing issue at Glover’s Reef in Belize, where Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) gather to spawn from December through March. Photo by Images & Stories/Alamy Stock Photo

Desperate circumstances foster desperate measures. The countries involved in poaching Nassau grouper are among the poorest, most corrupt, and violent in the region. The World Economic Forum identified corruption as one of the greatest challenges facing Latin America; more than one-fifth of Honduranians and Guatemalans have been victimized. (No data is available for Belize.) Parts of the border between Guatemala and Belize are still actively disputed; in 2016, Guatemala deployed 3,000 troops to the border to stake its claim. And the fortunes of these countries are tightly knit in ways that go far beyond conservation management. Guatemalans constitute the largest foreign-born population in Belize. Fishers in Dangriga, the nearest fishing village to Northeast Point, suspect that foreign poachers have local friends and family who help out with logistics, supplying fuel and food. But in conversation, what constitutes “foreign” is not always clear. I’ve met fishers in Glover’s Reef with valid licenses for conch and lobster who were born in Guatemala and still reside there but are eligible to fish in Belize because they hold a Belizean passport.

While no one is allowed to fish at Northeast Point—foreign or local—protecting the site from poachers would require 24/7 patrols during the spawning season. This is a tall order for a fisheries department with a US $1.5-million annual budget that keeps getting cut. It’s a Sisyphean task. Often, the success or failure of a conservation program comes down to basic problems of logistics—a broken engine or a dearth of fuel, for example—and not a fast-paced chase of Jack Sparrow on the high seas.

Recognizing that enforcement is the linchpin to any conservation program’s success, the WCS, along with a few other NGOs in Belize, provides funds and support for enforcement. The WCS supplies fuel for patrolling Northeast Point and outfits enforcers with essentials such as binoculars and rain gear.

Historically, poachers from Honduras and Guatemala have also targeted aggregation sites in southern Belize, but aggressive enforcement there may have pushed more poachers to try their luck at Northeast Point. “Think of it like squeezing a balloon,” says Will Heyman, a spawning aggregation expert now based out of Texas who conducted the Nature Conservancy survey that helped galvanize Belize’s Nassau grouper conservation efforts. “If you put pressure on poachers in one place, they’ll just find somewhere else to go.”

When a female Nassau grouper releases her eggs, the males swarming around her are triggered to release their milt. Any fertilized eggs hatch within a couple of days. Photo by Doug Perrine/SeaPics.com

The underwater currents carried away her fertilized eggs. The following morning, thousands of them hatched into finless larvae with transparent eyes and a large rich yolk sac—their inheritance—which would nourish them for the next few days until they developed an appetite for plankton. Within two months, nearly all her progeny were lost to predation. Ten juveniles finally settled into a shallow protected seagrass bed. Only one, a female, would reach maturity. Four years later, she, too, would respond to the pull of the winter full moon.


These problems are not unique to Belize: the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that about 15 percent of the world’s catch is illegal, unreported, and unregulated. Illegal fishing is both a local issue and an international one. Likewise, conservation. We are all part of the same tangled economic and ecological web. That’s the beauty of life on this blue marble. And its greatest challenge.

Conservation measures can only go so far when one country is acting on them alone—fish don’t pay attention to national borders. Wade hopes that fishing activities will one day be regularized between Belize and Honduras; the international NGO Oceans 5 is currently working on a pilot project to tackle this. The WCS recently sent two of its employees to Honduras to work with counterparts on setting up technical support to better monitor fishers. Politics make the relationship with Guatemala more fraught.

For a country heavily dependent on reef tourism, every grouper protected is money in the bank. Tourism now represents a fifth of Belize’s GDP and some 28 percent of its employment—much of it driven by North American visitors who want to snorkel and dive with creatures in their reef habitat. The World Bank estimates that the ecosystem services of the reef and surrounding mangroves contribute between 15 and 22 percent of the GDP in Belize—feeding its citizens, bringing in tourists, as well as providing an important buffer to prevent coastal erosion. Enric Sala has estimated that a grouper on the reef is worth 20 times its market price in tourist dollars. But this is almost beside the point. Nassau grouper aren’t just a resource (tourist or otherwise) to be exploited. The divers lucky enough to behold them know they are marvels in their own right.

Before Buck Nunez started working for the WCS, he used to fish at Northeast Point. Will Heyman would often pull alongside fishing boats, including Nunez’s, to explain that the spawning bank was closing. Unfazed, Nunez and his family just kept fishing anyway. Heyman would try other approaches, too, asking fishers if they wanted to take a diving course, to see what lived beneath the waves. It was an effective way to change a fisher’s perspective. Nunez eventually became a diver for the SPAG and then a WCS employee. He now actively works to protect the animals he used to catch.

One of the strengths, historically, of Belize’s conservation efforts has been the involvement and support of local fishers. Of the dozens of fishers I interviewed, each understands why the grouper bank was closed, even if they don’t like the way it affects their livelihood. Fishers now self-police to a certain degree, letting rangers know when they see another boat disregarding the rules. Others, like Verde, now promote reef conservation through eco-tourism or support research efforts by collecting and sharing data.

Belize’s conservation measures have also inspired other Caribbean countries to adopt similar management styles. Cayman Islands now protects its sites during Nassau grouper spawning season. Several aggregation sites off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula were recently protected, both for Nassau grouper and the many other species that aggregate at these special sites throughout the year. Heyman hopes to expand multispecies protection of aggregation sites northward along the Mesoamerican Reef and up the Atlantic coast of the southern United States.

Belize’s greatest achievement is not only that these grouper are still here—for tourists to gawk at, for fishers to subsist on, even for poachers to steal under the cover of night. It’s that the country is actively pushing its citizens to question their values—to see these fish for everything that they are. Not only as an indicator of the health of an embattled reef system, or a protein on a plate, but also as a thing of wonder that must be protected for its own sake, and ours; our fates are tied up with those of other species in ways that scientists cannot even begin to explain yet. “It’s this thing that is happening that is bigger than you,” says Tewfik one night, trying to describe what it’s like to behold a dense ball of spawning groupers. “Literally and figuratively. It’s this whole coming together of these fish that has been going on for thousands of years.”

Belize does not yet have an official national fish. But protecting this species is already a matter of national pride. If the country can convince more of its neighbors to think the same way about this remarkable animal, Nassau grouper might have a fighting chance.