They announce their presence to encroaching creatures by squeezing their swim bladders, the air sacs that help keep them afloat. Atlantic Goliath used to be numerous and widespread, inhabiting the waters of the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Brazil by the tens of thousands.
But after years of being speared and hooked by the boatload, their numbers dwindled to an unknown low, perhaps below a thousand. The Florida population is now rebounding, and fishermen, biologists, and local officials are raising their voices over whether the animals have recovered enough to shed their legal protection from people wielding speargun and fishing lines.
Chris Koenig of Florida State University has been catching Goliath for decades, but not to bring them home as fillets or trophies. With the help of some strong assistants, he hooks Goliath and wrestles them on board a small boat to measure them, remove a cartilaginous fin ray for DNA and age tests, sample the stomach contents for diet studies, and check reproductive organs for signs of spawning.
He and his wife and colleague, Felicia Coleman, who helps manage the slew of data, hope to get a handle on the current status of the species, Epimetheus Tamara. “Ordinarily these fish don’t move a whit; they are glued to the reef,” where food and shelter are plentiful, Koenig says.
“The political pendulum has swung so far toward protection that you can’t even touch or look at one,” says Key West City Commissioner Tony Yanis. “We have Goliath taking legal grouper and snapper right off our lines, over and over,” says commercial fisherman and guide Jim Thomas.
Why not have the fishermen contribute to answering the conservation questions by providing data on numbers and sizes of fish? Koenig and other non-fishermen with “eyes on the water” strongly dispute the claim that groupers are sucking up fishermen’s haul.
Studies have repeatedly shown that the lumbering Goliath feed almost exclusively on small, slow targets (crabs, not lobsters, make up more than half their diet). These fish mostly stick close to the same shallow reefs, rocky ledges, and wrecked ships.
“When it comes time to mate, they will travel great distances to get to spawning sites, nearly 300 miles in some cases,” says Koenig. “They might cover 25 miles a day in a beeline.” Fish from far and wide, maybe from the entire Atlantic seaboard, congregate offshore near shipwrecks and reefs, sidling together in bullet-shaped masses, bumping and nuzzling and sounding off in the dark of night as they send up sperm and eggs to build the next generation.
“If you were to catch anything over about four feet long,” says Don Maria, a former commercial fisherman who assists with conservation efforts, “you would have to throw it back anyway.” The mercury, he says, “makes it inedible.” The future of Goliath is also tied up in those mangrove nurseries, where the fish live around the trees’ tangled roots until they are about five years old.
They probably know his boat by the sound of it,” says R. Grant Gilmore, a fish ecologist at the Florida-based company Estuaries, Coastal and Ocean Science, Inc. Gilmore, who has studied the fish for decades, says Goliath groupers are ambush predators that “prey predominantly on slow-moving animals.
“As frustrating as it is to lose my catch to them, I respect the laws protecting Goliath and will never physically harm or kill them,” he says. “As apex predators, Goliath fill a niche in that ecosystem in which I am just a temporary visitor.
Somewhere in the warm waters off the Florida Keys lives a fish named Sylvia. Fabien Cousteau named the distinctive Atlantic goliathgrouper after famed ocean scientist Sylvia Earle when the curious fish and her larger companion repeatedly visited Cousteau during his expedition in the undersea laboratory Aquarius off-Key Largo in 2014.
“As ocean icons, it seemed normal that two beautiful Goliath groupers we saw almost every day would be named after my grandfather and Sylvia,” Cousteau says. But as numbers recover, sports fishermen and charter boat operators in the Keys complain that the fish has become a pest.
These top predators are becoming so protected, they are starting to prey more and more on the rest of the fish.” The arguments may sound plausible on the docks, but do not add up in the science lab, says Chris Koenig, a retired University of Florida marine biologist who has studied Goliath for decades.
“People make up all kinds of reasons why the fish must be destroyed,” Koenig says. Koenig, whose fascination with Goliath groupers dates to his boyhood when the fish was considered worthless, and his wife, Florida State University scientist Felicia Coleman, posted a “fact or fiction” paper online to refute false claims and clarifying the groupers’ dining habits and biology.
But in the Gulf of Mexico, the snapper fishery has been below sustainable levels for 20 years.” Koenig says the push to lift the ban on catching goliathgrouper has more to do with sport than anything else.
Among trophy fish caught in the Florida Keys, the goliathgrouper has long held special distinction. “We don’t really know how low the population got right before the closure,” says Amanda Valley, the commission’s spokesperson.
Valley adds the commission has no plans on the horizon to the reconsider grouper ’s status. Dan Maria, a commercial diver who used to hunt Goliath with a spear when they were plentiful, now thinks they are worth more alive than dead.
The experience becomes even more exotic during mating season, when Goliath migrate north to cooler waters just off Palm Beach, Florida, and gather in groups of 50. “Nowhere else in the world can you swim up to a fish that is the size of a small Volkswagen and pet it on the face and see about 30 of them around you,” he says.
He's finalizing a new analysis of the behemoth, in which he lays out a plan for reopening the juvenile goliathgrouper to fishing on a limited, sustainable basis. “If you miss the first shot, it might try to eat you,” Salon, a local spear fisherman, told me during an interview for my research.
I was attempting to create a more holistic picture of the fishery dynamics and possible threats that the grouper might be facing in Colombia. During interviews, older fishermen shared more detailed information about the life history, and the traditions and folklore around this grouper.
Fisherman had to wait for the right moon and the right tide to find a hungry Goliath, and the only people that would go out to confront this fish were the experienced. For them it is no longer the wild beast, it is now a rare fish that they occasionally catch, often at much smaller sizes than those grandfathers fought.
In contrast with other countries where bigger fish yield higher and better prices, in Colombia people pay more for smaller Goliath groupers (less than 30 cm, about a foot). This specific demand leads fishermen to direct their fishing effort to target small and immature groupers.
In the 1980s, numbers of the Atlantic Goliath groupers in U.S. waters crashed due to uncontrolled fishing, and they were declared critically endangered. We plan to work with local communities to teach the importance of these giants in their ecosystem and to promote better fishing practices that lead to a more sustainable use of marine resources.
Carolina Chong Montenegro is a fisheries' ecologist focusing on rare and threatened species of groupers. Carolina received her master’s degree at the University of Bremen, Germany, where she studied the biology and fisheries of the fascinating Pacific goliathgrouper in Colombia.
Carolina plans to continue her work studying small-scale fisheries in the Tropical Eastern Pacific and their impact on ecologically important and commercially exploited fish species. She aims to actively integrate local communities into the research process and apply interdisciplinary approaches for developing sustainable fisheries.
Reefs are considered healthier if you see one of us swimming around because we help maintain balance in the ecosystem. I use my large mouth to suck in whole fish or invertebrates, then swallow them right away.
Scientists estimate that historical overfishing decreased our numbers by about 80%, and it’s been a long road to recovery. After they’re fertilized, the eggs drift around in the currents until they finally hatch.