Since 1990 a state and federal ban has prohibited the harvesting of goliath grouper in U.S. waters. This may, however, change as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is now considering options to reduce the goliath grouper population in Florida.
The giants of the grouper family, and one of the few that can be found in brackish water, the goliath grouper can reach an astonishing 800 pounds and grow to over eight feet long. Their coloring is typically grey, olive green, and/or dark yellow to brown, with multiple small dark spots on their head, body and fins. The species enjoy a very long life, which sources say can last from 37 years to more than 50 years. Late to mature, males begin breeding at four to six years and females at six to seven years. The goliath grouper are known to feed on crustaceans and fish that are slow-moving, bottom-associated species.
Once abundant in tropical waters, by the 1980s the goliath grouper population had dwindled, largely due to commercial and recreational overfishing. Characteristics of the goliath grouper had made it particularly vulnerable to overfishing; specifically its large size, slow rate of growth, and low reproductive rate. In the U.S., a harvesting ban was enacted in 1990 in the hopes that the goliath grouper, now classified as Critically Endangered, could recoup their losses. The ban was effective, and the FWC stock assessment in 2016 indicated that in South Florida their numbers had increased.
Following the report of a population increase, the FWC began to consider allowing the limited take of goliath groupers; 100 goliath groupers per year for four years, for a total of 400 goliath groupers.
Amanda Nalley, FWC’s media contact, explained the turn of events, “After seeing a presentation on the recently completed federal stock assessment on goliath at the February 2017 Commission meeting, FWC Commissioners directed staff to gather public input on a possible limited harvest opportunity. The assessment indicates that abundance of goliath grouper has increased in South Florida. Staff gave information on how a limited harvest opportunity might work and the Commissioners wanted to get input on those ideas.”
Seven public meetings have already taken place in the month of August throughout Florida, with another seven scheduled for October. The format includes an informational presentation followed by an opportunity for public comment.
But despite the public meetings, there has been concern among some that the FWC decision to harvest the goliath has already been made. FWC Public Information Officer Brian Norris was asked directly if the harvest was a sure thing.
“Nothing has been decided either way,” Norris advised, saying that discussions are only in the “preliminary phases,” pending public input. A management plan is needed and “public input will be one of the major factors considered,” he added.
Jim Abernethy, an eco-tourism Florida dive charter operator with nearly four decades of experience, has been vocal in his opposition to a harvest, citing the following arguments.
1. Goliath grouper are still critically endangered.
A Florida State University research team recently published findings that the goliath grouper is still overfished, and critically endangered.
Researcher Sarah Frias-Torres, Ph.D. agrees. “You can’t ignore the scientific evidence confirming that goliath groupers have not recovered to pre-exploitation levels, and cannot handle fishing pressure without entering again in a spiral towards extinction.”
2. Goliath grouper are not responsible for declining fish and lobster populations.
Supporters of the harvest say that the species’ eating habits is the cause of declining fish and lobster stocks. They claim the goliath grouper competes directly with recreational reef fish fishermen, and substantially reduces the population of grouper and snapper in South Florida.
But researchers like Dr. Frias-Torres say that studies contradict this, and that overfishing, not the goliath grouper, is the real cause of declining fish and lobster populations.
Current analysis of the goliath grouper’s stomach content by the University of Florida showed 85% of their diet are crabs and other crustaceans, and 15% are slow moving poisonous fish, such as pufferfish, catfish and stingrays – not game fish.
3. Stock assessment results questioned, population remains low.
In 2016 a panel of scientists rejected the stock assessment that reported the stocks of goliath grouper had recovered. These scientists believed that the survey sample was in too small an area in relation to the large area that goliath groupers roam.
According to marine scientist and conservationist, Dr. Guy Harvey, “It is unlikely the population will be restored to former levels because of loss of habitat, overfishing of prey species and poaching. Now there is the suggestion of culling. Long-lived, slow growing fish cannot tolerate any level of exploitation. We should have learned this from what has happened to snappers, groupers and sharks all around the world.”
4. Goliath grouper are an integral, necessary part of their marine environment.
Florida State University researchers published a peer-reviewed paper showing that reef fish abundance and diversity was actually higher when goliath groupers were present. The study shows that goliath groupers are ecological engineers that create life for many species. Removing them would have a harmful affect on other sea life.
5. Goliath grouper’s high mercury levels make them inedible.
Goliath grouper should not be eaten because of dangerously high mercury levels. Dr. Chris Koenig’s research revealed that the poisonous mercury levels of up to 3.5 ppm far exceed the level of 1 ppm, where the sale of any fish is prohibited. At .5 ppm the Natural Resources Defense Council recommends we avoid eating these fish because of the well known documented effects of mercury poisoning.
The edibility question was posed to FWC’s Amanda Nalley, and she advised the following: “Goliath grouper are edible, but like other big fish, they can be high in mercury. Mercury content in larger goliath grouper (>4 feet) has been particularly high.”
6. Economic harm would result from a harvest.
Marine biologist, Dr. Sylvia Earle believes that killing the Goliath grouper would actually kill the growing economic benefits derived from divers who want to see these iconic animals, who are often as curious as us.
Dr. Guy Harvey also recognizes the species’ benefit to local economies. “Goliath grouper spawning aggregations have become a new destination for divers for a limited time each year. These aggregations bring people from far away to experience the thrill of seeing many of these great fish close at hand. This activity benefits the local economy without killing a single fish, just the same as shark ecotourism.”
Several charter boat captains were contacted for their opinions, but the controversial nature of the topic discouraged some of them from open communication.
Captain Bentley Jones of Adventurous Fishing Charters, LLC in Naples, was forthcoming. “My opinion is that there needs to be some measure of Goliath Grouper harvest management. They are voracious eaters and left unchecked could possibly begin to decimate populations of other species.”
He disclosed that his contact with goliath grouper is minimal compared to other charter captains, and supported further studies. “Commercial and recreational fishermen, along with marine resource management entities should combine data collection efforts to determine if a harvest is warranted.
“My limited experience indicates there is, and there seems to be a general consensus amongst the charter captains I talk with that it’s time to allow some limited harvest for the goliath grouper.”
Capt. Bentley Jones adds, “Bottom line is the management needs to be dictated by the hard science that is diligently collected, compiled and analyzed, and not by financial, personal interests, or political opinions. An initial limited goliath grouper harvest would be a management effort that would help ascertain more accurate data on the species as a whole, and may well be very useful to determine more accurate goliath grouper data.”
But Dr. Frias-Torres believes that science has already spoken. “Opening a fishing season (the ‘limited take’) will end 27 years of protection in only four years. In order to please trophy fishers, you risk cheating all Americans of our national treasure, because nowhere else in the world you can encounter a functional population of goliath groupers as in Florida. The take is not supported by scientific research.”
What are your thoughts? Voice your opinion by attending the FWC public hearing on October 18 in Naples, at the Collier County Public Library – South Regional, 8065 Lely Cultural Parkway. You can send your opinion by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, you can submit a public comment on FWC’s website, myfwc.com.