After a quarter decade of state and federal protection, Florida anglers are now calling for officials to open up the goliath grouper population to fishing. True to their name, goliath groupers can weigh well over 700 pounds and have a ferocious appetite to match. Sunshine State anglers and spearfishermen are growing increasingly worried that the grouper will have a detrimental effect on the local food chain.
“The fact is that they’re overpopulated,” Fort Myers spearfisherman Zachary Francis told the News-Press. “Any dive you make, you’ll see five or six. They can be very aggressive. They’re the premier predatory fish on the reef, and they’re eating all the other groupers.”
Spearfishermen were banned from harvesting the large fish in the 1980s after unsustainable commercial and recreational fishing nearly wiped out the species. In 1990, harvesting of the fish was made illegal in state and federal waters. Grouper numbers have since recovered, but not even biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) know how large the population currently is.
“The most recent stock assessment was completed in 2010. Although an independent review panel found the stock assessment to be inconclusive, data suggests Goliath grouper could be recovered,” the FWC stated on its website.
Many anglers and commercial fishermen support this belief, pointing to an increase in sightings in Florida waters.
“If I’m diving the big ledges, you see 400- or 500- pounders,” another spearfisherman, Ron Rincones, told Florida Today. “Every wreck now is loaded with them. There’s probably more now than there were in the late 40s and early 50s.”
A recently-conducted survey of nearly 3,000 anglers, divers, and commercial fishermen by the University of Florida found that the majority of those in the fishing trade support opening a limited harvest season. About 68 percent of commercial fishermen were interested in taking grouper, while 78 percent of surveyed anglers and spearfishermen supported removing protections. Many sportsmen consider the grouper a nuisance because it has a tendency to steal hooked fish.
The FWC says it currently has no plans to set up a management season, although it will be watching the results of another study surveying the grouper’s population. One benefit of having more groupers in the water, however, is that the predator will occasionally snack on invasive lionfish. Goliath groupers are one of the few fish that experts believe actively target lionfish for consumption. Lionfish are a major headache for conservationists because they have few natural predators and can severely destabilize reef ecosystems by eating prey fish. Last month Florida became the first state in the country to ban the importation of lionfish.