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Goliath Grouper Conservation

author
Maria Garcia
• Thursday, 26 November, 2020
• 18 min read

The once common Nassau grouper (Epimetheus stratus) and goliathgrouper (E. Tamara) have been so depleted that they are under complete protection from the South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean. From 1997-2005, our researchers collaborated with Florida State University's Institute for Fishery Resource Ecology (Dr. Chris Koenig and Dr. Felicia Coleman) to monitor the status and recovery of goliathgrouper.

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(Source: mission-blue.org)

Contents

This goliathgrouper research program investigated juvenile and adult Jewish abundance, distribution and migration patterns; their age and growth; and their habitat utilization. With the help of Don Maria we have tagged over 1,000 adult Jewish and have observed aggregations of goliathgrouper in both the Gulf of Mexico and more recently, the South Atlantic.

Posters created by the Center of Marine Conservation help disseminate information about our project and its requirements, highlighting our tagging study and the morphology of goliathgrouper. Given that these groupers were afforded protected status, researchers worked to utilize and develop novel non-lethal techniques to procure and analyze biological samples for life history information.

These casualties, resulting from red tide, gave our biologists a unique opportunity to collect a multitude of biological samples, without having to sacrifice healthy animals. From these decomposing carcasses, biologists were able to record length for use in an age/length relationship, and were able to extract monoliths and remove dorsal spines and rays for comparison of hard parts in age and growth analysis.

Tissue samples were also removed and sent to the Florida Marine Research Institute, so they could evaluate the level of red tide toxin. The sampling trip gave these biologists an opportunity to educate the curious beach goers about red tide and goliathgrouper (a few of which had been misidentified as baby manatees).

Attempts to evaluate the data needed to assess the status of these depleted stocks and develop rebuilding plans present unique challenges. In 2010, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and NOAA Fisheries convened a benchmark goliathgrouper assessment for the continental U.S. population.

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(Source: floridafishingreport.net)

This project would not have been possible without ongoing collaboration with researchers from Florida State University, Everglades National Park, and the recreational fishing and SCUBA diving communities. Groupers are generally a friendly species and can be found patrolling artificial and coral reefs alike, primarily in shallow tropical waters.

Goliath groupers navigate to an annual spawning for breeding, the season and location varies depending on the population. In Florida, hatchlings join their brethren in safe spaces near coastal mangrove estuaries and spend their first six years of life dining exclusively on fish, crabs, and shrimp before heading out to open waters.

The Goliath grouper grows slowly, attaining maturity around age 20-25, which is why it is important to manage fishing of the species; they need the chance to reach adulthood to reproduce in order to create a sustainable fishery. The Goliath grouper is a key species in Florida waters because their presence is an indicator of health for local coral reefs.

This particular species feeds by swallowing their prey whole, creating negative pressure that quickly them to bring in whole invertebrates, fish, and even smaller sharks. Many grouper, manatees, and turtles were found washed ashore on Southwest Florida beaches during the red tides in 2003 and 2005.

The good news is that as of 2006 the Goliath grouper ’s population had improved and was considered to be on a recovery trajectory due to the careful protection by NOAA Fisheries. The Ten A Thousand Islands area of Southwest Florida is one of few locations in the world where goliathgrouper have reestablished a viable population.

goliath grouper endangered critically fwc florida fishing wildlife fish change protect conservation commission reopening stop
(Source: www.change.org)

Read below to learn more about goliathgrouper, the history of its declining and recovering population, and how you can get involved as fisheries scientists continue to research and manage this species. Juvenile Goliath are typically more brown or tan with a more noticeable pattern of dark, blotched, vertical lines.

Once they reach reproductive age, goliathgrouper form large aggregations of 100 or more individuals during the summer spawning months of July, August, and September. These aggregations gather at shallow ledge or shoreline sites such as the mangrove forests of Ten A Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

Threats Several life history traits of goliathgrouper make the species particularly vulnerable to the pressure of overfishing. These traits include late sexual maturity, large and predictable spawning aggregations in shallow inshore waters, and strong refuge site fidelity.

For example, found approximately two hours north of Ten A Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Tampa Bay is one of the largest ports in the United States. It is estimated that over the past 100 years the area has lost over 44% of its mangroves and salt marshes due to heavy human development and traffic.

Coral reefs are susceptible to degradation through natural factors including hurricanes, El Niño events, and diseases. Reefs are also degraded through human action such as overfishing, damaging fishing practices, development, pollution, ocean acidification, and irresponsible tourism.

grouper goliath florida aggregation groupers diving species conservation diver castor scuba marine travel dive
(Source: scubadiverlife.com)

Once abundant and growing to massive, reproductively mature sizes, goliathgrouper have suffered significant population declines attributed to overfishing and habitat loss. While the species is showing clear signs of recovery in South Florida, the true status of the population remains uncertain.

Based on recovery trends throughout the past decade, goliathgrouper are no longer classified as a species of concern in U.S. waters. Yet, goliathgrouper remain vulnerable to the pressures of overfishing and habitat loss as the long-lived species slowly rebuilds.

Usually such a term is reserved for the most noble, or heart-warming of creatures, such as gray wolves, bald eagles, the giant panda, and humpback whales. However, in light of recent controversy over the endangered status of the Atlantic goliathgrouper (Epimetheus Tamara), it is clear that this often-gentle giant has won the title of “charismatic megafauna”.

Charismatic animals are the symbol of conservation campaigns targeted to inspire public concern for the protection of these species, and, more importantly, the entire ecosystem they call home. Alluring photographs of colorful coral reefs filled with a variety of fish also appear in an effort to protect these delicate marine ecosystems.

However, growing support for the continued protection of Goliath groupers seems to arise from their appeal to divers and to those who have seen them in aquariums or elsewhere. Prized by fishermen for their large size and meat, but vulnerable due to their slow growth and reproductive rate, Goliath groupers were fished to the brink of extinction.

goliath grouper endangered critically conservation strategies atlantic brazil species
(Source: www.researchgate.net)

The IUCN lists this species as critically endangered, noting that although populations seem to be recovering in light of the ban placed on their harvesting, there is no guarantee that overfishing threats are completely abated. In 2011, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council decided to maintain the moratorium on goliathgrouper harvest until at least 2015.

With such a decision to be made relatively soon, debate has surged among coastal residents, fishermen, and divers in regard to the continued protected status of Goliath groupers. After speaking with locals on the Gulf Coast of Florida, I learned that many spear-fishers lost their catch to an aggressive goliathgrouper.

Proponents of their protection refute such claims, arguing that the Goliath groupers do not pose as great of a threat to the marine environment as perceived. The opportunity to swim alongside such a large and “gentle” giant is a major attraction for divers, who travel from all over to observe annual spawning aggregations.

Although I have heard stories from other divers of mass aggregations, I had only ever seen fleeting glances of these creatures prior to this summer. The typical assortment of tropical fish swam about, as corals and green algae swayed with the current.

Trying my best to release as few and as small bubbles possible, I set my camera to manual, turned flash off, and proceeded to take photographs. We floated there for at least five minutes, the grouper appearing cautiously curious as I strove to capture a decent image in the shadowed lighting.

grouper goliath pacific status conservation colombia
(Source: www.conservationleadershipprogramme.org)

However, the long-term implications of growing Goliath populations remain unclear, which makes further research and understanding of these shy, but charismatic, fish even more important. The giant of the grouper family, the Goliath (formerly called Jewish) has brown or yellow mottling with small black spots on the head and fins, a large mouth with jawbones that extend well past its small eyes, and a rounded tail.

The skeletal structure of large Goliath grouper cannot adequately support their weight out of the water without some type of damage. If a large Goliath is brought on-board a vessel or out of the water, it is likely to sustain some form of internal injury and therefore be considered harvested.

Goliath grouper populations declined throughout their range during the 1970s and 1980s due to increased fishing pressure from commercial and recreational fishers and divers. At their July 2014 meeting in Key Largo, this committee reviewed the most up-to-date scientific information on goliathgrouper and recommended a new stock assessment for this species.

As a result, the most recent stock assessment, conducted by the FCC was completed in June 2016 (Sedan 47). The stock assessment indicates abundance in south Florida has greatly increased since the fishery closed in 1990.

However, in the final step of the review process, the assessment was rejected by an independent panel of scientists for use in federal management due to a lack of reliable indicators of abundance outside south Florida. Goliath are also susceptible to large scale mortality events such as cold temperatures and red tide blooms.

fish grouper wildlife
(Source: www.pinterest.com)

When not feeding or spawning, adult Goliath groupers are generally solitary, sedentary and territorial. Before the goliathgrouper reaches full-size it is preyed upon by barracuda, king mackerel and moray eels, as well as sandbar and hammerhead sharks.

Calico crabs make up the majority of their diet, with other invertebrate species and fish filling in the rest. Reproductive maturity first occurs in fish 5 or 6 years of age (about 36 inches in length) due to their slow growth rate.

Males mature at a smaller size (about 42 inches) and slightly younger age than females. These groups occur at consistent sites such as wrecks, rock ledges and isolated patch reefs during July, August and September.

Studies have shown fish may move up to 62 miles (100 km) from inshore reefs to these spawning sites. In southwest Florida, presumed courtship behavior has been observed during the full moons in August and September.

Calico crabs make up the majority of their diet, with other invertebrate species and fish filling in the rest. The Atlantic goliathgrouper or Tamara (Epimetheus Tamara), also known as the Jewish, is a large saltwater fish of the grouper family found primarily in shallow tropical waters among coral and artificial reefs at depths from 5 to 50 m (16 to 164 ft).

grouper goliath pacific wikipedia conservation status epinephelus
(Source: en.m.wikipedia.org)

Its range includes the Florida Keys in the US, the Bahamas, most of the Caribbean and most of the Brazilian coast. On some occasions, it is caught off the coasts of the US states of New England off Maine and Massachusetts.

Young Atlantic Goliath groupers may live in brackish estuaries, oyster beds, canals, and mangrove swamps, which is unusual behavior among groupers. They may reach extremely large sizes, growing to lengths up to 2.5 m (8.2 ft) and can weigh as much as 360 kg (790 lb).

The world record for a hook-and-line-captured specimen is 308.44 kg (680.0 lb), caught off Fernanda Beach, Florida, in 1961. Considered of fine food quality, Atlantic goliathgrouper were a highly sought-after quarry for fishermen.

It is a relatively easy prey for spear fishermen because of the grouper's inquisitive and generally fearless nature. They also tend to spawn in large aggregations, returning annually to the same locations.

This makes them particularly vulnerable to mass harvesting while breeding. Until a harvest ban was placed on the species, its population was in rapid decline.

grouper goliath conservation marine atlantic culture facts eat institute crosby mason fun takes stand support really things these glores agri
(Source: marine-conservation.org)

The fish is recognized as “vulnerable” globally and “endangered” in the Gulf of Mexico. The species' population has been recovering since the ban; with the fish's slow growth rate, however, some time will be needed for populations to return to their previous levels.

Goliath groupers are believed to be protogynous hermaphrodites, which refer to organisms that are born female and at some point in their lifespans change sex to male. Males can be sexually mature at about 115 centimeters (45 in), and ages 4–6 years.

In May 2015, the Atlantic goliathgrouper was successfully bred in captivity for the first time. Tidal pools act as nurseries for juvenile E. Tamara.

In tidal pools juvenile E.Tamara are able to utilize rocky crevices for shelter. Besides shelter, tidal pools provide E. Tamara with plenty of prey such as lobster and porcelain crab.

It may have referred to the fish's status as inferior leading it to be declared only suitable for Jews, or the flesh having a “clean” taste comparable to kosher food ; it has also been suggested that this name is simply a corruption of jaw fish or the Italian word for “bottom fish”, Giuseppe. In 2001, the American Fisheries Society stopped using the term because of complaints that it was culturally insensitive.

grouper goliath fish florida ocean keys atlantic giant marine species key line mote diving reef oceana thread coral fishes west
(Source: oceana.org)

^ “FLM NH Ichthyology Department: Goliath Grouper ". Age, Growth, and Reproduction of Jewish Epimetheus Tamara in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Pseudorhabdosynochus species (Monogenoidea, Diplectanidae) parasitizing groupers (Serranidae, Epinephrine, Epinephrine) in the western Atlantic Ocean and adjacent waters, with descriptions of 13 new species”. In late April, the Florida Wildlife Commission (FCC) is meeting this week to discuss opening a fishing season on the state’s Goliath groupers (Epimetheus Tamara).

Goliath groupers will be on the agenda on Thursday, April 26th, starting at 8:30 am, at the Marriott Fort Lauderdale North. Standard practice generally allows each speaker two to three minutes to voice their concerns on the subject, in this case, reopening a fishing season on Florida’s iconic Goliath groupers.

In Florida) for goliathgrouper are highly divergent, ranging from a no-take perspective for the preservation of the fish for ecotourism at one end, to a strong desire to reopen them to fishing due to the belief that their numbers have more than recovered, and they are now a “nuisance species.” FCC is proposing that a limited harvest would be handled through a random drawing for approximately 100 kill tags.

The actual fee for each individual tag is still undetermined but the maximum amount that could be collected is capped at USD $300. By the time they are ready to move offshore and populate coastal reefs and wrecks they are approximately four feet long.

grouper goliath menu season story considers fwc opening
(Source: www.news-press.com)

Hence, generally that means in order for anyone to find and catch a fish in the slot-size range proposed by the FCC they will likely capture of larger breeding age adults. There is also the potential for an exponential rise in poaching activity as it will be harder for the FCC, with their limited resources in law enforcement, to track and clarify which fish was or was not landed legally.

Originally, the season was planned to last one full week with a limit on adult bears take at no more than 320 individuals. In a Washington Post op-ed, the newspaper cited that the Florida chapter director of Humane Society of the United States wrote that the FCC’s reasoning for the bear hunt “ignores science,” noting that black bears were listed on Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species List as recently as 2012.

A state judge who denied an injunction to stop the hunt agreed that much of the science that FCC was using to justify it was weak. The bottom line: wildlife management by politics instead of biology and scientific data does not work.

The most recent study published in the Martin project final report for NOAA on regional age structure, reproductive biology and tropical patterns of adult goliathgrouper in Florida, using data provided by the FSU fish biological department, found levels of methyl mercury in adult Goliath groupers that were frightening to say the least. Part of FSU doctoral student Chris Malinowski’s work on the presence of mercury in Goliath groupers found MMH concentrations in the muscle tissues (filet portion) among the younger fish in the 4.5 to 5.2-foot range averaged 1.5 ppm, with maximum figures as high as 2.6 ppm.

The US Food and Drug Administration’s “action level” (which the FDA may prohibit sale of fish) is 1.0 ppm. The FCC’s own fishery management staff know all this, but are still allowing the commissioners to push an agenda that the data does not support.

grouper goliath fishing florida largest ever groupers report fish giant chew myers fort critically endangered protect caught shark attacks slow
(Source: mission-blue.org)

Compare that to a dive charter, which can fill a boat with divers specifically to see Goliath, particularly during their spawning season from late July to early October. We’ve all heard that “they are beautiful, majestic creatures that should not be hunted” from those opposed to lifting the protective measures for these fish.

It took more than 15 years (1990 to 2015) before we began experiencing a favorable sign of this fish coming back in U.S. waters. As a professional photographer for more than 20 years, Walt Stairs has produced stunning images for a variety of magazines, travel agencies, wildlife organizations, television programs and much more.

His scuba diving, boating, and sport fishing skills have allowed for travels around the world. Photo courtesy Oaths large, solitary fish will defend its territory when threatened, with aggressive body language and a rumbling sound it makes with its swim bladder.

Its large, thick, elongated body can grow to over 8 feet long (and up to 800 pounds), from rounded snout and small eyes, to short, fan-like tail fin. Usually it is a mottled yellow-brown to gray with darker bard and spots, ideal for blending in to their rocky coral and muddy inshore habitat.

Other names are Baden (Portuguese), campus (Portuguese), hernia gig ante (Italian), China (Spanish), group (Portuguese), gran morgue (Iranian), guava (Spanish), data (Japanese), harbor (Norwegian), havsabborre (Swedish), Tamara Vienna (Polish), Judaism (Norwegian), hero guava (Spanish), hero (French), orphan (Turkish), raitameriahven (Finnish), Sophos (Greek), scarring (Italian), tip (Palikir), Atari (Icelandic), and zackenbarsch (German). A 450 pound goliathgrouper caught by Buddy Junks at the Big Indian Rocks Fishing Pier, Florida (1976).

grouper goliath fish change
(Source: www.change.org)

Photo courtesy Kenneth Krzysztof historical importance to commercial fisheries, the goliathgrouper has also long been prized by recreational and sport fishers. Spear fishers find this fish easy to approach; hence in locations accessible to divers their numbers have declined.

The large size, slow growth, low reproductive rate, and spawning behavior have made the goliathgrouper especially susceptible to overfishing. The goliathgrouper is totally protected from harvest and is recognized as a “Critically Endangered” species by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

Furthermore, the IUCN concludes that the species has been “observed, estimated, inferred or suspected” of a reduction of at least 80% over the last 10 years or three generations. Historical exploitation of goliathgrouper annual spawning aggregation sites greatly reduced the number of reproductive adults.

Occurring in shallow, inshore waters to depths of 150 feet (46 m), the goliathgrouper prefers areas of rock, coral, and mud bottoms. It is territorial near areas of refuge such as caves, wrecks, and ledges, displaying an open mouth and quivering body to intruders.

Additional warning may be delivered in the form of the goliathgrouper ’s ability to produce a distinctly audible rumbling sound generated by the muscular contraction of the swim bladder. Photo courtesy NOAA Distinctive Features Goliath grouper are the largest members of the sea bass family in the Atlantic Ocean.

grouper goliath atlantic conservation marine esso bonaire institute takes stand support own sa cc work
(Source: blog.marine-conservation.org)

Coloration This fish is generally brownish yellow, gray, or olive with small dark spots on head, body, and fins. The presence of a number of short weakly developed canine teeth is useful in distinguishing this species from other North Atlantic groupers.

Photo © Don Maria Size, Age, and Growth The goliathgrouper is the largest grouper in the western Atlantic. However, this specimen was sampled from a population of individuals depressed by fishing pressure and it is projected that goliathgrouper may live much longer, perhaps as much as 50 years.

Photo © Don Maria Food Habits Goliath grouper feed largely on crustaceans (in particular spiny lobsters, shrimps and crabs), fishes (including stingrays and parrot fishes), octopus, and young sea turtles. However, the significance of this finding is of diminished value when one considers that transitional individuals are known to be rare amongst confirmed species of protogynous hermaphrodites, such as the red grouper (Epimetheus Mario) and gag (Mycteroperca microbes).

Photo courtesy National Marine Fisheries Service In support of the notion that the species is a protogynous hermaphrodite is the fact that the largest Goliath groupers are invariably male. Spawning occurs during the summer months of July, August, and September throughout the goliathgrouper ’s range and is strongly influenced by the lunar cycle. Ship wrecks, rock ledges, and isolated patch reefs are preferred spawning habitat.

In the 1980s these aggregations reached a low of less than 10 individuals per site as fishing pressure greatly impacted this species. Since receiving legislative protection the spawning aggregations of goliathgrouper have risen to 20-40 individuals per location.

grouper florida goliath limits grizzly officials bear say still discuss harvesting conservation lauderdale commission wildlife fort opening limited members fish
(Source: news.wgcu.org)

These pelagic larvae transform into benthic juveniles at lengths of one inch (2.5 cm), around 25 or 26 days after hatching. In an 1884 work, “The fishes of the Florida Keys,” David Starr Jordan proposed the inclusion of the goliathgrouper in Epimetheus (Bloch 1793) and this combination remains in use today.

Of incidental note is the fact that various authors have incorrectly spelled the specific epithet “Tamara” as “tiara.” The genus name comes from the Greek epinephelos translated as cloudy. A number of authors treat the name Promiscuous Tamara as valid taxonomy for the goliathgrouper.

Robert Woods has been a fish keeping enthusiast ever since his parents bought him is first tank at age 4. Since then, he has gone on to keep hundreds of different species and now educates aquariums through his online publication Fish keeping World.

Marine Conservation Institute strongly supports no-take rules for the Atlantic goliathgrouper. On January 19th a delegation of Chinese government officials from the State Oceanic Administration visited the Washington, DC office of Marine Conservation Institute to discuss marine protected area policy, fishery management and pirate fishing.

Mike Gravity, director of the Washington, DC office hosted the visitors and Beth Pike, conservation scientist, gave them a remote demonstration… However, that loss rings loudly throughout the ecosystems and food webs, permanently altering the way other creatures live, including humans.

goliath grouper atlantic endangered cuba conservation groupers lifted embargo protected ocean pouted
(Source: oceandoctor.org)

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Sources
1 kwseafood.com - https://kwseafood.com/product-category/fish/grouper-fillets
2 fultonfishmarket.com - https://fultonfishmarket.com/fresh-red-grouper-portion.html
3 www.tridge.com - https://www.tridge.com/intelligences/grouper/price
4 fishmart.sg - https://fishmart.sg/product/red-grouper-small/
5 kwseafood.com - https://kwseafood.com/seafood/fish/grouper-fillets/red-grouper
6 marketfresh.com.sg - https://marketfresh.com.sg/products/red-grouper
7 www.louisianaseafoodco.com - https://www.louisianaseafoodco.com/product/fresh-red-fish/
8 fishchoice.com - https://fishchoice.com/buying-guide/red-grouper
9 www.charlestonseafood.com - https://www.charlestonseafood.com/SearchResults.asp