Six years ago, University of Miami researchers conducted a stock assessment for federal officials and announced that the state's hogfish population was overfished. Spearfishermen on the west coast of Florida immediately cried foul.
"The data didn't make sense," said Dennis O'Hern, a diver and fishing activist who lives in Seminole. "We have a very healthy hogfish fishery."
The problem with Lachnolaimus maximus, sometimes erroneously called hognose or hog snapper, is they are seldom caught on hook and line. Marine biologists usually depend on anglers, via phone calls and dockside interviews, for catch rate information, not divers and spearfishermen, who actually see hogfish.
With an elongated snout resembling that of a pig, the hogfish is one of the most peculiar looking sport fish in the Gulf of Mexico. A member of the wrasse family, a big hogfish can reach 3 feet in length. They have strong jaws and root around to feed primarily on clams, crabs and snails.
According to the International Game Fish Association's World Record Game Fishes, the all-tackle record for hogfish is 21 pounds, 6 ounces off North Carolina, and the Florida record is 19 pounds, 8 ounces.
Under Florida law, hogfish must have a fork-length measure of 12 inches, and fishermen may keep five per day. The controversial stock assessment in 2003 had recommended the size limit for hogfish be increased to 20 inches and the bag limit lowered to one per day.
But public outcry postponed the move and helped to show officials that not much was really known about the hogfish.
Recreational spearfishermen, the primary stakeholders in regard to hogfish, wanted to help officials get a better understanding of the one of the state's premiere sport fish.
So the National Marine Fisheries Service commissioned a cooperative research project to learn more about this species.
With federal funding, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute teamed with the St. Pete Underwater Club and other scuba diving groups to gather valuable information in the field.
Partners in science
As part of the study, Angela Collins, an FWC marine biologist, accompanied spearfishermen from 2005 to 2007, logging 431 dives and learning much.
Hogfish are highly valued by spearfishermen because of their large size and fine-tasting meat. Their conspicuous presence and curious nature — hogfish are not shy and allow divers to get close — make them a staple for divers.
Commercial spearfishermen harvest about 45,000 pounds annually, according to state records, making them Florida's most economically important wrasse. State researchers estimate recreational divers take four or five times that amount.
"Perhaps one of the most interesting things about hogfish is that the males form harems," Collins explained. "A single male typically patrols a group of two to 15 females. He will check on his females repeatedly and engage in courtship behavior (involving a quiver dance) throughout the day, but spawning typically occurs near dusk."
Peak spawning season runs from December through May. Protogynous hermaphrodites, some hogfish change sex during their life cycle.
"Hogfish begin life as females and switch to male if they become big enough and their social cues (i.e., lack of a male) warrant transition," Collins said. "They cannot switch back — once a male, they can't return to being a female. The transitional process may take weeks, months."
The research institute's study, which concluded in the summer of 2007, yielded some important information. The formal report has just been completed and submitted to the NMFS, where it will add to the body of science on this unusual fish.
"We know that there are regional differences in the hogfish population," Collins said. "While there is some evidence that they may be overfished in South Florida, that does not appear to be the case on the west coast of Florida."
Chris Gardinal, a SPUC member who participated in the project, said he would like to do it again. "I didn't know anything about hogfish, even after 38 years of diving," he said. "The whole experience was just awesome."
O'Hern, who often finds himself at odds with federal fishery managers, added: "The stakeholders, in this case the spearfishing community, learned amazing things about their fish from the scientists, who in turn learned amazing things about the fish from the stakeholders."