The next few days mark the peak of spawning season for goliath grouper off the coast of Florida, and many are calling for a limited harvest of these large fish to be allowed in the state’s waters. According to the Miami Herald, the harvesting of goliath grouper has been banned since 1990 in an effort to restore the fish. Over two decades later, many commercial fishermen and recreational anglers say that the fish have rebounded, and are eating more than a fair amount of other fish.
For conservationists, the recovery of the goliath grouper is a complicated issue. The fish were in danger of disappearing altogether from Florida waters in the late 1980s. Now, the grouper has significantly recovered but no information exists from before the recovery effort to gauge stock size. Retired goliath grouper researcher Chris Koenig says that previous stock assessments amounted to essentially “guessing” and that it will be at least until 2015 for biologists to reach a conclusion on the grouper’s recovery.
“You can’t see fish that large and that many anywhere else in the world,” Koenig said.
Although goliath grouper can be found alongside both Florida coasts, perhaps the largest congregation is the gathering near the town of Jupiter in late summer. Growing to a maximum of 800 pounds, goliath groupers have legendary appetites for smaller fish. They also make impressive catches for anglers, although their bone structure means that they should be handled very carefully out of the water. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission states that large groupers brought out of the water are very likely to suffer an internal injury, and most times should not brought on a boat. Due to this, photos are rarely taken of goliath fish. They are a prohibited species in Florida and are catch-and-release only.
However, their preference for eating valuable sport and food fish such as hooked snook have local fishermen less than charmed. Some are calling for a limited harvest of these large fish. Koenig says it may be possible, but the harvest could hurt the Florida diving industry. Many divers visit locations such as Hole in the Wall, a natural cavern near Jupiter, to see the fish. Koenig believes that compromises must be made for a possible harvesting season.
“Both the recreational fishing and diving ecotourism industries can have what they want, but it has to be done cautiously,” Koenig said.
Either way, harvesting will not happen until Florida wildlife officials confirm that the grouper population is stable. In the meantime, many anglers are more than content to practice catch-and-release with these fragile giants.