For decades scuba divers in Sydney enjoyed the company of a friendly eastern blue groper reckoned to be as much as 40 years old, and known to locals and visitors as Gus.
That was until a speardiver from New Zealand killed the iconic fish on 30 December. And if the man initially expected beach-goers gathering to photograph him as he posed in his blood-stained wetsuit to be admirers, it soon became clear that they were collecting evidence for use against him.
The incident occurred at Oak Park beach, south of Cronulla, and the 26-year-old culprit subsequently got away with an Aus $500 (£264) on-the-spot fine, following questioning by police. The penalty was imposed for taking the fish without use of a rod or handline.
The maximum fine is $22,000 or a prison term of up to six months, but no court appearance is required, which was why the diver’s name was not issued by police. According to one report, the man had later shown “significant remorse” for his action.
Blue gropers (Achoerodus viridis), a type of wrasse, have been the official fish of New South Wales for more than 25 years and are protected – though only from commercial fishing and spearfishing.
“Gus was more than just a fish; he was an ambassador for marine conservation, delighting divers with his mesmerising hues and gentle demeanour,” stated PADI course director Peter Letts, the owner of Abyss Scuba Diving, which he founded in 2000 and is described as the largest PADI dive-centre in New South Wales. A blue groper inspired the Abyss logo,
Letts described Gus's demise as “a stark reminder of the threats faced by marine life, even in areas designated for their protection. We must act now to prevent such heart-breaking incidents from happening again. We need stricter enforcement of existing laws and regulations and more robust conservation efforts.”
He also suggested that the boundaries between local spear and no-spear areas were ambiguous and needed clarification. “By doing so, we can proactively prevent any potential harm, such as an uninformed spearfisherman inadvertently targeting a scuba diver.
“A plausible solution would be to establish a marine reserve encompassing the entire area, aptly named the Gus Reserve.”
Abyss followers lined up to comment on Gus’s death on social media. “We have dived at Oak Park hundreds of times and not a single dive without seeing him,” said Dean Methieson. “I've even pulled urchin spikes from his mouth, he was that friendly. Really disappointing that someone would think that a fish that swims up to you would be fair game.”
“I have been scuba-diving with Gus for over 15 years now and to think he will no longer be there to greet me on a dive because of one human’s uneducated and disrespectful actions is saddening,” commented Jamie Miller.
But in a twist to the tale, David Ireland, a wildlife documentary-maker who originally gave the groper the name Gus back in the 1980s, later claimed that the victim had not in fact been Gus at all.
He said that the dead fish was smaller and lacked a distinctive scar near the tail where Gus had once been speared before.
Some years ago a distinctive bright yellow grouper attained island-wide status in Madeira over many years, to the extent that a giant image of the fish greeted new arrivals at the airport. It too was killed by a speardiver, prompting outrage on the Portuguese island.