A Florida saltwater fish of legendary proportions, growing to weights of nearly 800 pounds, the goliath grouper was hunted to within range of extinction in the 1980s. A ban on its capture was enacted in 1990, and its population has begun to recover.
But the goliath is under threat again, environmentalists warn, from fishermen who are eager to resume the pursuit. The great fish's fate rests largely in the hands of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which meets with federal officials in Key Largo this week to ponder the goliath ban.
Inquisitive and daring of nature, the goliath was ready prey to spearfishermen, its flesh a culinary prize. Spawning annually in groups of up to 100 or more at habitual locations over lifetimes as long as 30 years, it was easily located and hunted en masse; its near extinction was predictable. With a ban now in place and its numbers somewhat restored, the spectacle of masses of the giants spawning among shipwrecks off South Florida's shores draws divers from around the world each summer.
We have been unable to document any sign of an organized effort to lift the ban, by either commercial or recreational fishermen's groups, only scattered instances of individual blog post complaints and anecdotal accounts relayed in news stories. Much of the pressure appears to come from Southwest Florida, where the goliath is said to have rebounded well.
Here's how scientists at the University of Florida have summarized the gripes:
A common perception among anglers and spear-fishing enthusiasts is that large and abundant goliath groupers eat other groupers and snappers, and thus substantially decrease the abundance of the fish that fishermen are targeting. This perception is reinforced by the fact that goliath grouper will opportunistically prey upon hooked or speared fish. Many anglers report that aggressive goliath grouper can make it almost impossible to land a fish. In extreme cases, anglers complain that such activity can make it essentially impossible to fish an area with any hope of successfully bringing legal-sized or even undersized reef fish to the boat.
Recreational divers have expressed concern about human safety as goliath grouper repeatedly exposed to wounded or dead fish can become aggressive, and in extreme cases may harass divers with speared fish.
Science on the matter argues against the fishermen's anecdotes.
Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres of the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, says her research shows the goliath is actually "a fisherman's best friend," bolstering lobster populations by eating lobster predators.
Researchers at Florida State University have concluded that:
"Despite strident assertions of some fishers to the contrary, fishes the size of goliath grouper are not voracious and indiscriminate predators within the reef fish community... [Instead] the indigenous goliath grouper has a positive effect on the biodiversity and abundance of associated reef fishes."
Science notwithstanding, some Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioners have been eager to lift the ban and barb the hooks.
At the FWC's February 2011 meeting, then-Chair Rodney Barreto (a powerful Miami developer) commented that "he receives many questions about opening goliath grouper and that we should be striving to give this opportunity to the public in the future."
agreed with the chairman and said he sees many goliath grouper in the SW region. He wants to know how we get to the point where we have enough science to make an intelligent decision, and is age and size important for breeding purposes. Gil [McRae, director of the FWC's Research Institute] said we are on the road now to having the appropriate science and that they are in the water doing research right now, and he anticipates having the information complete in five years.
McRae's "five years" prompted Barreto to jump back in, saying he:
wants to see us get this addressed sooner than five years and has asked that Gil factor this all in and see what can be worked out sooner.
Three years later, as FWC and federal officials meet later this week, the goliath will again be on the agenda. And again there will be voices crying out to lift the ban, most likely advocating a limited allowable catch, initially.
But even a limited catch would be a mistake, according to some scientists.
Dr. Frias-Torres says the fish's rebound remains precarious, subject to vagaries like weather (she estimates that sustained cold water temperatures in the winters of 2009 and 2010 killed 90 percent of the goliath's juvenile population) and red tide (which she says killed "in excess of 150" adult goliaths in 2005).
"We really don't know if the [goliath grouper] stock is rebuilt. It's probably close, but we don't know... A lot of people feel if we open the bag limit, people will fish it right back down."
Joint Council Committee on South Florida Management Issues and Ad Hoc Goliath Grouper Joint Council Steering Committee
January 7, 2014 - January 9, 2014 Hilton Key Largo Key Largo, Florida
Agenda here Contact: 888-833-1844
Petition: Save The Goliath Grouper
UPDATE: The goliath lives! As reported in Keysnews.com, officials at the Key Largo meeting:
concluded there is not enough information to determine if the fishery has recovered, but seemed divided whether they should authorize a study that would call for as many as 800 fish to be harvested. A no-kill stock assessment of Goliath grouper completed in 2009 showed the fish stocks may have recovered... Representatives at this week's meeting discussed continuing that study and not killing the massive groupers, or embarking on a new study, which could allow for the scientific harvest of 800 Goliath groupers over two years... The group plans to meet at least one more time before making any formal recommendations to the boards of each fishery management agency.... However, those present did shoot down an idea to open the fishery for a limited recreational harvest.
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