TAMPA — More than 30 years after overfishing so decimated Florida’s goliath grouper population that the state banned anglers from keeping them, wildlife regulators on Thursday decided to allow people to catch and kill 200 of the fish each year.
The change comes as basic questions about goliaths remain unanswered: Scientists do not know exactly how many there are in Florida or how long they live.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission researchers said the species has rebounded enough that it will not be destroyed by a small harvest, and that anglers will report details to help scientists learn about the fish.
Commissioners voted 3-1 to start a season as soon as 2023. Three members of the commission were not in attendance.
“We have a stock that is rebuilding and rebuilding in a way that allows for a highly regulated, limited take,” said Commissioner Robert Spottswood, who supported the proposal. “There is scientific benefit.”
Goliath groupers, mottled brown and yellow with black spots, can grow to be 800 pounds and 8 feet long. They have huge jaws and tiny eyes, and they open their mouths wide to swallow smaller fish, crabs and lobsters whole.
Under the state’s new rule, anglers will only be allowed to keep goliaths between 24 and 36 inches long. Fish of that size are usually not old enough to reproduce. The oldest known goliath was 37 years, according to the Conservation Commission. Researchers say the fish could live up to 100.
The state has debated reopening a harvest for years, most recently in 2018. Fishing enthusiasts, divers, scientists and environmental advocates have been polarized on whether keeping the groupers is a good idea.
Nineteen people spoke at Thursday’s meeting, reinforcing the divide.
“It’s exactly the time to start looking at this,” said Austin Cave, who described growing up spearfishing around Tampa Bay. “I’ve watched the goliath grouper population explode.”
Both Cave and another diver, however, opposed a caveat that will block people from fishing for the grouper with spears.
Fisherman Travis Thompson, who hosts the Cast and Blast Florida outdoors podcast, called the move “a step in the right direction.”
“It’s a very cautious step,” he said.
But several people said Florida does not have enough data on goliaths; at least one argued the state could stand to learn more through catch-and-release studies. Chris Malinowski, director of research and conservation for the Ocean First Institute, said “this is simply not the time,” and that wildlife officials have not shared how they will measure the effect of the new season.
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“This harvest proposal will not get us any closer to understanding the recovery,” he said, “and it will actually take away from it.”
Shana Phelan, operator of Pura Vida Divers in Riviera Beach, told the commissioners it’s their job to make sure goliath groupers are still there for her 12-year-old daughter to see when she dives.
“We don’t currently know where our adult populations are recruiting from or where they’re migrating from,” she said.
Anglers have caught and killed goliath groupers at least since the 1800s, according to the state, but overfishing plagued the species between the 1950s and 1980s. People have not been allowed to keep them since 1990. Some have complained about goliaths stealing their catch. The Conservation Commission says the fish do not chase quick swimmers like snapper regularly.
At one point, the groupers were considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Goliaths also swim in the Caribbean, near Brazil and off of Africa.
Young goliath groupers hang around mangroves across Florida, especially the Ten Thousand Islands area west of Everglades City. Older goliaths live by shallow reefs and shipwrecks, where scientists say they are key predators helping keep the ecosystem in balance. The fish are territorial but spawn in large groups, one reason why they are considered an easy target. When they reach full size, their only predators are people and sharks, according to the Conservation Commission.
Anglers will now be able to apply for a random lottery each fall (at a cost of $10), after which the state will hand out 200 permits and tags. The permits will cost Florida residents $150 and out-of-state visitors $500. Each tag will be good for keeping one fish.
The season will take place between March 1 and May 31, a period chosen to avoid the peaks of both spawning and Red Tide. Goliath groupers are vulnerable to the toxic algae, which usually bloom in the fall and winter. Last summer’s Red Tide killed goliaths in Tampa Bay; on one morning, a gray, bloated carcass floated up to a seawall behind then-St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman as he made an announcement about the bloom.
People will still be blocked from keeping goliaths in federal waters and in Southeast Florida, from Martin County to the Keys, where dive companies take sightseers to watch them in spawning clusters around shipwrecks and coral reefs. The Conservation Commission has said it wants to balance fishing with other tourism.
What people do with the goliaths they catch — either eat them or keep them as trophies — remains to be seen. The size limits are also intended to protect human health. Goliaths between 2 and 3 feet are thought to contain less mercury than bigger fish. High mercury levels would pose a risk to anyone who ate them. The Conservation Commission said it will work with other state agencies to consider health advisories before the first season.
Anyone who keeps a goliath grouper will have to report their catch within a day, according to the state, and scientists may ask for a biological sample — like a clip from a goliath’s fin.
The lack of a goliath grouper fishing season is one reason so many questions persist about the species, according to the Conservation Commission. Fish stock assessments often rely on data collected to show the weight of fish caught and killed in a year, but that doesn’t exist for goliaths. They aren’t fished commercially, either. Allowing anglers to keep 200 a year will not be enough to inform a thorough population assessment. Nor will it be enough to lower the number of times anglers blame goliaths for taking their fish, the state said.
One public speaker Thursday, Steven Atran, urged the commissioners to implement a 5-year sunset period for the rule to guarantee that the season will be reconsidered. Atran said he used to work for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.
“Clearly they’ve increased in abundance,” he said, but scientists still do not have a comprehensive view of the grouper population. He urged commissioners to “acknowledge the uncertainty.”
Commissioner Steven Hudson voted against the plan.
The state can review the harvest at any time, Commissioner Michael Sole said. The vote does not mean wildlife regulators are declaring “mission accomplished” for goliath groupers in Florida, he said. “There is a lot more recovery that is needed for the species.”