The Gulf covers most of Florida’s west coast, from Pensacola in the Panhandle to the start of the Everglades at the tip of the peninsula. This is important to keep in mind as there are different regulations for what’s in season and what you can harvest depending on if you’re in state or federal waters.
For Gag Grouper fishing in the Gulf, it’s important to note what county you’re embarking from. For counties of Franklin, Weibull, Taylor and Jefferson (in the Panhandle area from Apalachicola to Steinhatchee) there is open season in state waters from April 1 to June 30, and again from September 1 to December 31.
Black, Red, Scamp, Yellow fin and Yellow mouth Grouper all have similar regulations in the Gulf. It’s open season in both state and federal waters for Rock Hind, Coney, Yellow edge and Snowy Groupers.
You can ask your charter captain if the size you have is a keeper or not; or refer to the FCC regulations to make sure you’re staying compliant. If you’re lucky enough to catch a GoliathGrouper or Nassau Grouper, take a quick picture and release it back to the wild.
Now moving east to the beautiful Atlantic Ocean where there are excellent opportunities for grouper fishing. Keep in mind, the FCC considers the Everglades and Florida Keys as part of the Atlantic Ocean waters, and all fishing done in these areas must stay within Atlantic-specific regulations.
From the Florida Keys to Jacksonville, anglers have hundreds of cities to choose from to launch your grouper expedition. East Coast anglers should mark your calendars for May 1, this is when Gag Grouper and Black Grouper season opens from the Keys to Duval County (Jacksonville area).
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 range includes the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Keys in the United States, the Bahamas, most of the Caribbean, and most of the Brazilian coast.
Scientists from our Southeast Fisheries Science Center are working to understand the changes that have occurred in coral reef ecosystems following the loss of top predators, such as groupers. 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. 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. 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.
Starting in August and peaking in September, the number of these groupers at dive sites throughout Palm Beach County swells as they gather to spawn. As spawning time approaches, however, they temporarily abandon solo life and gather in groups of 50 or more.
It’s no secret that divers love to swim with big fish, and Goliath groupers, which can reach lengths over 8 feet and weights approaching 800 pounds, certainly qualify. Despite their size, Goliath groupers prefer to eat lobsters, crabs and other small animals they can suck into their huge mouths and swallow whole.
While today, it still takes some special effort to find a spawning aggregation, not that long ago it was virtually impossible. Overfishing caused such a decline in numbers that spawning aggregations had essentially disappeared in the late 1980s.
Several spots in Palm Beach County host aggregations with fairly good reliability throughout the fall. According to Shana Plan, of Pure Vida Divers, the Micah, one of a series of wrecks in a dive known as “The Corridor,” and the Spud Barge are two favorite sites for aggregating Goliath groupers.
Typically, the end of July, first of August marks the beginning of GoliathGrouper spawning season. Goliath groupers (Epimetheus Tamara) are the largest predatory, reef-dwelling money fish in the Tropical Atlantic and Caribbean.
Not so in the waters of Palm Beach County, where at any time of the year it is quite common to see at least one or two of these big animals lurking on a wreck or within an undercut on a ledge. But spawning season is something different, as the area’s resident population of Goliath are joined by fish from as far as 350 miles / 560 kilometers away.
Five of those sites lay within easy reach of dive charters between Jupiter and Boca Raton. Some spawning fish that end up in Palm Beach waters begin their journey from considerable distances (Cumberland Island, Georgia the furthest documented), and start moving as early as mid July.
By August, the bulk of the migrating fish have completed their journey, swelling the ranks on the aggregation site from a handful of behemoths to aquatic herds of 50 or more. In the summers of 2013 and 2014, the Castor Wreck off Boynton Beach (the most southern spawning site known off Florida’s east coast) received the lion’s share with 100 plus fish.
The shift in preferred locations may have been also influenced by a string of cold-water upwelling that plagued the first half of the 2013 season, pushing a number of fish farther south than normal. Unlike one of their closer kin, the Nassau grouper (Epimetheus stratus), which typically spawn in mass under a full moon in winter, the actual mating ritual for Goliath is still somewhat of a mystery.
This creates considerable frustration for both fishery biologists and underwater photographers, as no one has yet been able to document the actual spawning event. These methods have helped determine that that spawning takes place shortly after sunset during a six to seven night period centered on the new moon cycles of August and September.
What divers typically see during daylight hours on any given spawning aggregation site are a collection of colossal-size groupers either formed up in a single group, or a collection of subgroups hanging close to one another, with the fish milling about idly as if saying, “O.K., we’re all here, now what?” When divers encounter these groups of Goliath, there is little to be afraid of, as the fish are no more territorial during spawning season than they are any other time of the year. Divers with a group of Goliath grouper during spawning season in front the Castor wreck off of Boynton Beach, Florida.
When threatened, they sound off with a short series of loud booms accompanied by a brief body shake that makes the fish look like its having a mild seizure. But this posturing is almost all bark and no bite, as they will typically retreat to a safer distance or disappear in a deep hole in the reef or wreck the moment they feel their bluff has been called.
Seeing an entire spawning aggregation when underwater visibly is good (60-100 feet / 18-30 meters), is a spectacle that sometimes defies words.