“The fact we’re even having this discussion means we’ve been successful,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission chair BO River. Curious and generally fearless, they were easy targets for anglers and spear fishermen, especially when they gathered in large numbers in July and August to mate.
After the ban in 1990, the fish began to bounce back, but scientists believe Florida's record 2010 freeze likely sent numbers downward again. Anglers, however, have increasingly complained that the voracious fish are taking over reefs and gobbling up their catches.
A survey FCC conducted in the Keys and Dry Tortugas found just a 2 and 4.5 percent increase. They also said lobster counts have remained stable, indicating that the fish are not affecting the popular, and lucrative, crustacean.
The controversy over whether to allow harvesting has divided some anglers and divers, who consider the gentle Goliath a mascot for the reefs. On Thursday, about 60 speakers, nearly all divers and many wearing Save the Goliath T-shirts handed out by the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association, criticized the move as an attempt to appease anglers.
“You’re awarding a trophy fish to essentially a lazy hunter,” said Miami diver James Woodard. UM Rosenthal School of Marine and Atmospheric Science fishery scientist Bill Hartford and Nova geneticist Andrea Bernard said they are working on building a statistical model, similar to methods used to assess blue fin tuna, that can account for gaps in catch history caused by the fishing moratorium and provide an accurate count for adult fish in Florida.
“People got us into this problem and if the fishing opens back up, we'll likely be back in this position,” said Ellie Fodder, a sophomore environmental study major at Becker College who left campus at 3:30 a.m. Thursday with her dive club, the Scuba Jews, and campus rabbi, Ed Rosenthal, to make the morning meeting. 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.
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.
Its massive size and slow growth (it takes five to seven years for a grouper to become sexually mature) has made it highly susceptible to pressure from commercial and recreational fishing, which has led to its status as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Recently, the FCC conducted a stock assessment of the grouper ’s numbers in Florida, and found it to be at much healthier levels than it was when first declared an endangered species.
However, the study was rejected for use in federal waters by an independent panel of scientists due to its limited scope, which only included South Florida. They’ve raised enough concern that the FCC is now considering reopening the fishery, albeit in a limited fashion.
Due to the controversy around the issue, the FCC is hosting more than a dozen workshops to discuss the matter and to get a feel for public opinion. Currently, one idea on the table is to create a four-year paid lottery that would allow 100 people each year to harvest one goliathgrouper.
It would cost $300 to buy into, and the fish can only be caught by hook and line, with no commercial harvest or sale allowed. Studies by Florida State University marine biologists in 2010 and 2011 found that the grouper is still being fished illegally and disagreed with anglers’ statements that the Goliath is a threat to their livelihood.
Furthermore, they found that Goliath improve reef diversity rather than threaten it, countering a claim that has been made by proponents of an open fishery. Regardless, anglers contend that they are competing with the grouper, saying that Goliath have snatched their catch from their lines as they were reeling them in.
GoliathGrouper have made a major comeback over recent years after being completely decimated by commercial pressure in the 70s and 80s. Goliath's can reach weights over 600lbs and love to engulf anything they can fit in their mouths, whether that is a jack, snapper, shook or permit, they couldn't care less.
Although their aggressive personalities make them easy to hook, pulling them away from the safety of their dens is another matter entirely. Depending mainly on the depth of the water and the structure, we employ 30-80 size reels on broom sticks for stand-up rods.
We were in the Keys a couple of years ago and were also told it was illegal to even bring one out of the water because they ARE a protected species. Sign in it really depends on where you live... I am guessing Florida, so check myfwc.com, but you first have to catch one.
A Key West college student learned a hard lesson about Florida wildlife law this week, police said. Joshua David Anyzeski, 18, was jailed Monday after state fish and wildlife officers said he removed a Goliath grouper from the water, so he could pose for a photo with it.
He was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of possession of a Goliath grouper, booked into the Stock Island Detention Center and released the same day after posting a $7,500 bond. A Key West college student got arrested after sharing this photo with friends in a group text.
“The lagoon is a classroom space where we teach diving and marine science classes,” said Amber Ernst-Leonard, the college’s spokeswoman. Anyzeski got in trouble after sending the photo of him holding the Goliath grouper to friends in a group text to brag about snagging the fish, according to the report.
On Aug. 28, FCC investigators went to Anyzeski’s dorm room at the College of the Florida Keys to speak with him about the photo. Asked if Anyzeski is in trouble with the school for the catch, Ernst-Leonard said the college does not comment on student disciplinary cases.
She was part of the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 2005 won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. These voracious fish make many an angler feel slung into the biblical role of David, battling a much larger adversary that can grow eight feet long and up to 800 pounds.
That's a welcome prospect for anglers routinely robbed by Goliath that gobble up their catches shamelessly. “They have pretty much taken over the reefs,” said Ron Rincóns, a retired Grant-Valkaria charter captain who's seen the Goliath come and go over six decades in Florida.
At Wednesday's meeting, FCC staff will provide the commission a review of the biology and recently-completed study of the fish's population. “This is a review and discussion on the history, biology and recent stock assessment,” Amanda Valley, an FCC spokeswoman said by email.
“FCC will be asking the Commission whether staff should pursue gathering further public input on potential management changes, including the possibility of allowing some kind of limited harvest.” Years of commercial divers overfishing them almost did the Goliath in by 1990, but fishermen say this top predator has bounced back with a vengeance, clearing reefs of other fish and lobsters, anything they can vacuum up with their mammoth mouths.
They describe seeing so many Goliath along Florida's reefs and shipwrecks that it's high time to remove the long-running ban on harvesting the fish. “They'll eat permits ... anything that's easy ... anything that's smaller than them,” said Greg Simmons, a sport fishermen in Fort Pierce.
That year, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council banned spearing of goliathgrouper. But the report also cited a long-term lack of landings data, rendering the assessment inconclusive and the stock status mostly unknown.
And that's a glimmer of hope for fishing guides, such as Maker, who just wants fewer clever Goliath around to swipe away catches. The Goliath snatch the shook right out of his hand, or wait until he releases exhausted fish, making a mockery of catch-and-release.
It happened Wednesday, he said, when a several hundred pound Goliath got the best of him, stealing a 10-pound shook right out of his hand.