A proposal to allow goliath groupers to be killed won preliminary approval Wednesday from the Florida wildlife commission, over the objections of many scientists, conservationists and divers.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted 6-1 to take steps toward lifting a 31-year ban on catching the goliath grouper, a species that can reach upwards of 600 pounds and lives among the reefs and wrecks of the South Florida coast.
Although less well known than such Florida species as the alligator or panther, the goliath plays a growing role in the economics of Florida’s dive industry, with dive shops taking clients to photograph the giant fish, many of whom appear equally curious about their human visitors.
The commission’s staff now will draft a formal proposal specifying how many fish could be caught, how licenses would be distributed, and any restrictions. The number of fish wasn’t specified, but a previous proposal called for 100 per year, a number that several commissions called inadequate.
Members of the commission, a board appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, said the goliath’s numbers had increased, thanks to years of protection, to the point that it wasn’t fair to the fishing community to maintain a ban on “harvesting” them.
“I think the time has come, and I think we should look at where we’ve come in 30 years with this fishery,” Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said. “Believe it or not, it’s another great conservation story. It really is. We should be applauding ourselves. Thirty years ago we had the foresight with the federal government to close it because we saw the decline.”
But three scientists who have studied the species sent a letter to the commission opposing a fishery for the goliath, which they called a “vulnerable species that has not fully recovered from exploitation or the other pressures that limit its recruitment and survival.”
The grouper’s prospects are limited by “tremendous losses” of mangrove habitat for juveniles and remains highly vulnerable to cold snaps, red tide and algae blooms, said the letter from Felicia C. Coleman and Christopher C. Koenig, both retired from Florida State University, and Christopher R. Malinowski of Purdue University.
The wildlife commission received more than 3,000 public comments by last week, 98% favoring a continued ban on killing goliath groupers, according to the commission. An online petition headed “Save the Goliath Grouper” generated more than 59,000 signatures. Among the organizers of the opposition was Jean-Michel Cousteau, head of the Ocean Futures Society and son of environmental pioneer Jacques Cousteau.
“We need to protect goliath grouper forever, in perpetuity, like we do with turtles, manatees, dolphins, whales,” Cousteau said during the meeting Wednesday. “These species are important to the ocean and they should not be taken for personal pleasure or for food.”
Although catch-and-release fishing already is allowed, many people who fish or spearfish want to be able to take them, saying they’ve become abundant, steal their catches and help drive a decline in reef fish.
“These fish have become a nuisance to divers, as they opportunistically feed on the catches of spearfishers,” said Meaghan Emory, fisheries conservation chair for the Florida Skin Divers Association, which represents people who spearfish. “Normally just the sound of a spear gun in the water will attract the goliath to a particular area and stimulate aggressive behavior. These negative interactions not only detract from the experience of fishing but also pose a safety risk by putting divers at risk of entanglement.”
Despite the fishing community’s complaints that goliaths were competing for their catches, scientists who have analyzed the goliath’s diet say it consists most of crabs and small fish, not the larger fish targeted by the recreational fishing community.
Among the speakers opposing the proposal were the co-owner of a Palm Beach County dive shop, a representative of the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association. Among the supporters were representatives of the American Sportfishing Association and Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, a recreational fishing group.
The fish, which are easy to find and catch, sustained severe declines from fishing in the 1970s and 1980s, leading the state to oppose a ban in 1990. Although the species has begun to recover, it has nothing like the numbers it had half a century ago, when it could be found all around the Florida peninsula, in the Caribbean and down to Brazil, according to a report by the wildlife commission.
Gil McRae, director of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, the commission’s research arm, said the goliath grouper may not be great eating because of high mercury levels.
Jessica McCawley, director of the commission’s Division of Marine Fisheries Management, told the commission the species’ numbers have improved and could support a “limited, highly regulated harvest.” A 2017 proposal mentioned in Wednesday’s presentation called for a total statewide catch of 100 per year, with permits distributed through a lottery system for up to $300 each.
“Our conservation efforts have worked and we should be applauding ourselves and celebrating the success that we’ve had in bringing this fishery back,” Commissioner Robert Spottswood said. “We’ve brought it back to a level where now it can even sustain a small harvest.”
“Just because there’s a philosophy out there that says this big loveable creature should never be taken, I don’t think that’s part of our management philosophy.”
Any formal proposal for a goliath grouper catch will take months or longer. Several commissioners said they were unsure what to do but wanted to see more research and a formal proposal.
Commissioner Michael Sole, who cast the only vote against the proposal, said he wasn’t opposed to a catch in principle, but didn’t think there was enough favorable data yet to support it.
“I’m not opposed to harvest,” he said. “I just don’t think we’re here today, and it’s not right in my view.”
Don DeMaria, a former commercial spearfisherman from Key West, said he used to spear them in the mid-1970s, and it didn’t take long for the population to thin out. Although it may be possible for a small fishery to work, he said the goliath’s situation is so fragile that it may not be able to handle it.
“You could make the argument that a sustainable harvest could be achieved, but you could also make that argument for manatee,” he said. “You could have a sustainable harvest of manatee of maybe one a year, but what’s the point? And I don’t think the goliath grouper population is doing as well as some folks think.”
awesome fish, save it!