Representatives will meet at 8:30 a.m. Thursday in Kissimmee and will receive an update from the members of a committee currently researching whether to allow a scientific or recreational harvest of the fish. The committee, which comprises FCC and South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fishery management councils, has recommended keeping the ban on harvest for now.
Vast technological improvements in spear guns and diving equipment in the 1960s and 1970s made no wreck, cave or hole safe for Goliath groupers to hide. Image: brown taxidermy.composer Keys commercial fisherman and diver Don Maria was one of the biggest slayers of the Goliath grouper, stalking them with his spear gun for years.
The fish do not spawn for the first six to seven years of their lives, making recovery for the species slow, said Chris Koenig, one of the leading researchers in the field of Goliath grouper. The ban came in “response to indications that the population abundance throughout its range was greatly depressed,” according to the federal protection law.
No one knows exactly how many are left compared to their historical numbers, but the Goliath grouper is recognized as a “critically endangered” species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In the last five years, there has been a growing movement to reopen the fishery, as fishermen blame the large predators for stealing their catch.
“We can no longer catch groupers and snappers off the wrecks of the Gulf (of Mexico) because they are eating them,” Key West charter boat Capt. “They are having an impact.” Gonzalez proposes that fishery managers open the Goliath grouper to a limited take in which anglers pay $1,000 for a tag with the proceeds going to research, he said.
Committee member John Sanchez proposes a limited take with a slot size of 32 to 48 inches to keep the larger breeding fish alive, he said. “You leave the known aggregations alone,” said Sanchez, who fishes out of Homestead and serves on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.
Many dive operators specifically take their clients to wrecks and other areas inhabited by Goliath groupers as their sheer size amazes many divers. Scientists agree, Goliath grouper are not able to chase down fish for their typical meal. In January, Upper Keys dive charter boat operator Spencer Slate made an impassioned plea to the Ad How Goliath Grouper Committee to keep the fishery closed.
He showed committee members several large hooks and spear tips that he and other divers had extracted from the mouths and heads of Goliath groupers. Federal and state fishery managers admit they do not know enough about the life history or the population numbers of the lumbering beast.
He has been able to obtain life history data on the grouper by taking a small sample of the Finlay of the fish, and by placing tracking tags on it. Some 600 Goliath grouper samples have been collected, 200 short of the goal fishery managers have said would be a statistically valid study, Koenig said.
Koenig also argues that simply allowing fishermen to catch them without strict parameters on where and how many should be caught would do little good for science. Many Goliath groupers start their lives in mangrove habitats before moving to coral reefs, wrecks and other areas offshore.
Researchers have begun to raise red flags about mercury levels in Goliath grouper, as state and federal fishery managers debate allowing the fish as table fare. The South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico fishery management councils and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FCC) have formed a committee to discuss possibly allowing a limited recreational or scientific harvest of the grouper.
The fish were collected after they died during cold snaps, or were illegally caught and confiscated directly by FCC law enforcement officers. The study found that mercury levels in adult Goliath grouper are as high as, or higher, than those of these restricted species.
The study’s findings provide evidence that Goliath grouper is not a viable fishery species, at least not the adults, Koenig said. Lower Keys spear-fisherman Don Maria argued the Goliath grouper is listed as endangered everywhere throughout its range and has not recovered to acceptable levels.
“This fish is worth much more alive than dead to the recreational dive industry,” said Maria, citing an argument that many Florida Keys diver operators have continually made. In 1994, goliathgroupers were declared critically endangered and the fishing of Goliath in both federal and state waters was prohibited.
Then they swim into view, gentle giants stretching up to eight feet and weighing in at a svelte 500 pounds. Historically, Goliath ranged well beyond our state’s shores, now, they are primarily found in southern Florida’s waters.
In fact, every year from July through September, they aggregate off Jupiter, Florida to spawn. According to the FCC website, staff will provide a review and discussion of Goliath grouper, including biology, stock status, and stakeholder feedback.
They will then seek the Commission’s direction on what steps to take next for Goliath grouper management in state waters–which may include limited harvest. Voice your opinion at the FCC Commission meeting on April 26th in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
For a look at the April Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agenda, click Here! Reaching lengths of at least 8 feet (2.5 m) and weights up to 700 pounds (320 kg), this species is one of the largest predators on coral reefs and along mangrove forests in the Atlantic Ocean and one of the largest groupers in the world.
However, during reproduction (immediately after the full moons between June and December), they come together in groups of at least 100 individuals. These groups are known as spawning aggregations, and they form at relatively few places throughout the species’ range.
Though they were likely naturally rare, scientists believe that destructive fishing practices have reduced the numbers of the Atlantic goliathgroupers by at least 80% and that the species is now critically endangered. These fish utilize the same, few locations and same, few days for spawning every year, so their presence is quite predictable.
Furthermore, a total lack of fear of people makes them an easy target for spear fishers. Finally, the Atlantic Goliath grouper’s large size, slow growth, and ease of capture all contribute to slow its recovery, even where laws have been put in place to give it some or complete legal protection from fishing (e.g., in the USA and Brazil).
It is important to continue to monitor Atlantic Goliath grouper population trends in order to determine whether the species is recovering or if stronger legal protection may be required. Scientists only recently divided the species into two, based on their slightly different genetic makeup.
The two species are similar in both appearance and behavior, but little is known about the population trends or conservation status of the Pacific Goliath grouper. Southern stingrays, a green moray eel, and two sea turtles also share this exciting exhibit.
Sand tiger sharks are found in the shallow, coastal tropical waters of all oceans except the central and eastern Pacific. Diet This nocturnal hunter feeds on bony fish, small sharks and rays, octopus, and large crustaceans.
Unique Adaptations Sand tiger sharks are often found in groups of a few dozen, hovering in caves or near reefs or shipwrecks. Sand tigers migrate, coming toward shore during the summer and moving southward or to deeper waters in the winter.
Reproduction Female sand tiger sharks are viviparous (producing living young from eggs that hatch within the body). Southern stingrays inhabit temperate waters of bays and estuaries from New Jersey to Brazil, as well as the Gulf of Mexico.
Diet Rays feed on a wide variety of bottom organisms, such as crustaceans (shrimp and crab), mollusks (snails and shellfish), and worms. Development is viviparous (pups hatch from their egg capsules while inside the mother’s uterus and are born soon after).
Sea turtles are air-breathing reptiles found in the tropical and temperate waters of the world’s oceans. In the early spring and summer, females may leave the water and return to their home beach to nest.
Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are carnivores, feeding on crabs, mollusks, jellyfish, mussels, and fish. Unique Adaptations Streamlined bodies and flippers make these large animals powerful swimmers and divers-some species routinely diving to depths greater than 1,000 feet and staying underwater for several hours.
Unlike their freshwater relatives, sea turtles have a special gland that rids their bodies of excess salts. These events are called an “arrived” and take place on a small strip of beach at Ranch Nero, Mexico.
Their populations have declined due to commercial harvest of turtle meat, eggs, skins for leather, and shells for ornaments and jewelry. They die from ingesting marine debris, such as plastic bags, or get caught in nets as by catch and drown.
Moray eels are found in tropical reefs and shallows from New Jersey to Brazil, including Bermuda and the Gulf of Mexico. They feed on fish and crustaceans, especially crabs, and use their long, slender bodies to enter holes and crevices in search of hidden prey.
Despite warning predators with a large open mouth and sharp teeth, morays are not aggressive and do not usually bite unless provoked. Moray eels begin adult life as males, then later change to females (sex reversal).
Cobra can be found on the western coast of the Atlantic from Massachusetts to Argentina, often in open waters. They frequently follow large animals like sea turtles, sharks, and rays to scavenge leftovers.
They live in the tropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic Ocean, along the eastern coast of the U.S. and south to Brazil and Uruguay. Jacks are typically light, usually silver with red pigmentation which disappears in dark ocean water.
Diet These strong-swimming carnivores rely on speed and strength to catch their prey, which includes small fish, cope pods, and other ocean animals. Unique Adaptations Jacks are often found swimming with sharks, but when roaming the open sea they school as a defense mechanism.
Jacks can also be seen hitching a free ride in the bow wake of their predatory “companions.” Juveniles hide among jellyfish, debris, plants, etc, and have a deeper and sleeker appearance then the adults. They prefer the sheltered habitats of coral reefs, and especially shady areas such as shipwrecks, rock ledges, and caves.
Atlantic Goliath grouper have a broad, flat head and mouth, and can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh over 700 pounds. These hunters are not built for speed over long distances and prefer to ambush prey, rather than pursue it in open water.
The diet of these large predators consists mainly of crab, lobster, fish, octopus, and young sea turtles. Habits and Adaptations Atlantic goliathgroupers are often spotted or dark, allowing them to camouflage with their surroundings.
Small groupers may be preyed upon by barracuda, king mackerel, moray eels, and sharks. When threatened, an Atlantic Goliath grouper will defend its territory with aggressive body language and a distinctly audible rumbling sound.
These puffer fish primarily inhabit coral reefs and other warm shallow waters. Usually brown, with some yellow on the underside, these stocky, slow swimming fishes have a large head and a “box-shaped” body.
Diet Porcupine fish use their strong beaks to crush coral polyps, mollusks, crustaceans, crabs, and sea urchins. Unique Adaptations Puffers hide in coral and as their name implies, can puff up two to three times their normal size by sucking air or water into a special chamber in their abdomen.
Puffers employ a number of defenses to avoid getting eaten: they are covered with sharp spines, their internal organs contain an extremely toxic nerve poison, and when cornered they can bury themselves in the sand. This important food fish can be found in warm coastal waters, from Massachusetts to Brazil, including Bermuda and the Gulf of Mexico.
They have a triangular-shaped head and a notched tail, and are capable of inflicting injuries to unsuspecting fishermen with their well-developed teeth. Tarpon are found in tropical and temperate waters along the eastern Atlantic coasts of North and South America.
Unique Adaptations When swimming in oxygen-poor water, tarpons can gulp air from the surface using special lung-like bladders. Initially the young head to shallow water where they become an intricate part of the plankton that drifts with ocean currents far from shore.
Trigger fish usually spend a large portion of their lives near a coral reef-inhabiting areas in coastal waters from New York to Brazil. Small eyes set high on a large, angular head and jaw give them a “bucktoothed” appearance.
Diet Trigger fish have powerful jaws and teeth that allow them to easily crush hard-shelled prey like crustaceans, mollusks, coral, and sea urchins. The Queen trigger fish will blow mouthfuls of water at sea urchins to flip them over and expose their softer underparts.