Goliath grouper are anything but gentle giants for Florida fishermen (w/video)

Citing the propensity of goliaths to swipe their catch, they want protections rolled back.
Published June 29 2017
Updated July 5 2017

Goliath, the biblical giant, wasn't known for bothering fishermen. But the gigantic fish named after him — which can weigh up to 800 pounds — is notorious for exactly that.

Now Florida fishermen want to strike back at the goliath grouper.

In February, they petitioned the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to allow a limited open season on the goliath grouper. They said the massive fish lurks underwater, pouncing whenever a fisherman has caught something by spear or fishing line.

"Every time we go offshore fishing, they're pretty much eating our fish," said Capt. Jim Limke, owner of the fishing charter Light Tackle Adventures. "We've had to pick up and move to a different spot just to try and get away so we're not losing fish to them."

The captain said the fish are "pretty much everywhere," but there's a way to solve that: He thinks fishermen who want to catch goliath groupers should be able to purchase kill tags, such as the ones hunters must obtain when they kill and harvest an animal.

"So that not everybody and their brother is going to go out there and kill one," Limke said.

There's a problem with ideas like that: The goliath grouper was declared a critically endangered species — one step up from extinction — by the International Union for Conservation of Nature back in 1994.

A 2010 Florida State University research paper found that the goliath grouper was still "overfished … and critically endangered."

Some local divers agree.

"I'm not convinced that they have recovered from their threatened status as much as people like to say they have," said Dennis Monroe, founder of Gulfport Dive School, a scuba club.

The first federal restrictions on fishing the goliath grouper were established for federal waters by the South Atlantic Council in 1983 in response to the species' plummeting population. State and federal governments imposed more restrictions over the next seven years to little avail. Finally, in 1990, Florida was forced to ban all noncatch-and-release fishing of the goliath.

Even so, four years later the species gained its "critically endangered status."

Since 2007, regional fishing councils have sought to lift the moratorium on the goliath grouper. Their hopes were raised in 2016 when a stock assessment by the wildlife commission found that the goliath grouper's population had recovered in South Florida. Those hopes were subsequently dashed that same year when an independent panel of scientists rejected the assessment due to its limited geographical scope, which covered only South Florida.

That rejection ensured that the moratorium on goliath grouper fishing will hold in federal waters. But it shouldn't necessarily be applied to a judgment about state waters, said commission spokeswoman Amanda Nalley.

"The assessment was rejected for use in federal management due to a lack of data on abundance outside of South Florida," she said. "In Florida, though, the assessment shows that abundance of goliath are relatively high, especially in southwest Florida."

The commission in February looked at a proposal to create a four-year paid lottery allowing 100 people a year to harvest a single goliath grouper. The proposal would allow only hook-and-line fishing, however, preventing the commercial harvest and sale of the fish. It would also ban fishing near spawn sites.

The idea will be refined at community workshops held across the state that will run through October. The issue could come back to the commission as soon as December, and if approved it wouldn't take effect until 2018.

Still, not everyone is on board.

"I think it's a bad idea," said Monroe, who also works as a diving instructor. "It's an unfair sport for one thing.

"They don't run away from you. … Goliath groupers are very gentle and docile. And quite honestly, I enjoy seeing them when I'm diving."

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