Goliath groupers: Harvest them or protect them?

Submitted by Brett Fitzgerald on September, Sep 8, 2014



Written by Tim Ohara, Florida Keys News

There seems to be little argument about whether conservation measures put in place to protect the Goliath grouper have been a success. But a debate is waging about whether they have been successful enough to reopen the fishery to even a small limited harvest.

Those who want to reopen Goliath grouper to fishing argue the fish has become so plentiful that anglers can’t reel up smaller fish without them being snatched off their lines by the giant beasts, which can weigh in excess of 500 pounds.

Also, Goliath groupers are consuming large numbers of spiny lobster, a major cash crop, supporters of opening the fishery say. They are calling for a small limited harvest.

But conservationists disagree, saying that Goliath grouper populations have not rebounded to a point where they could be responsibly harvested. They point to studies that show that spiny lobsters are not a mainstay of the Goliath grouper diet.

They believe fishermen would quickly wipe out the species by targeting them on wrecks and artificial reefs, and by spearing the slow-moving fish that has no fear of divers.

Divers and dive business operators argue the Goliath groupers have become a major attraction for divers and are worth far more alive than dead.

Large goliath are a draw for some anglers, a bane for others. photo: anotherkeeper.comThe Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Representatives will meet at 8:30 a.m. Thursday in Kissimmee and will receive an update from the members of a committee currently researching whether to allow a scientific or recreational harvest of the fish. The committee, which is comprised of FWC and South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fishery management councils, has recommended keeping the ban on harvest for now. 
 

Easy prey

Goliath groupers were easy targets for fishermen for decades, becoming the trophies that anglers hung up on the dock — five and six at time — to prove that they had a successful day of fishing. Iconic photos of proud anglers posing next to their kill still hang in many restaurants, hotels and homes in the Keys today.

Vast technological improvements in spear guns and diving equipment in the 1960s and 1970s made no wreck, cave or hole safe for Goliath groupers to hide. They have few natural predators and little fear of divers.

Goliath have a remarkable pattern as juveniles, which fades as the fish grows. image: browntaxidermy.comLower Keys commercial fisherman and diver Don DeMaria was one of the biggest slayers of the Goliath grouper, stalking them with his spear gun for years. DeMaria also was one of the first to ask for their protection. He believes the ban should remain in place, he said.

“There is no way they would hold up under the fishing pressure,” DeMaria said, arguing the fish’s enormous size, slow growth, low reproductive rate and spawning behavior have made them especially susceptible to overfishing.

The fish do not spawn for the first six to seven years of their lives, making recovery for the species slow, said Chris Koenig, one of the leading researchers in the field of Goliath grouper.

State and federal fishery managers granted protected status to Goliath groupers in 1990.

Their population was so low at the time there was little opposition to banning fishing for them.

The ban came in “response to indications that the population abundance throughout its range was greatly depressed,” according to the federal protection law. The initial emergency rule became permanent, and the ban was extended throughout Caribbean waters in 1993.

No one knows exactly how many are left compared to their historical numbers, but the Goliath grouper is recognized as a “critically endangered” species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The species throughout the world has been “observed, estimated, inferred or suspected” of a reduction of at least 80 percent during the last 10 years, according to IUCN, the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network.

A call for reopening

In the last five years, there has been a growing movement to reopen the fishery, as fishermen blame the large predators for stealing their catch.

Images depicting many large goliath killed by anglers and divers used to be common. photo teamorca.org

“We can no longer catch groupers and snappers off the wrecks of the Gulf (of Mexico) because they are eating them,” Key West charter boat Capt. Pepe Gonzalez said. “They are having an impact.”
Gonzalez proposes that fishery managers open the Goliath grouper to a limited take in which anglers pay $1,000 for a tag with the proceeds going to research, he said. The tags could be given out through a lottery or some other fair way.
If an angler catches a Goliath grouper, he or she could call the FWC on the way back to the dock, where an officer or scientist could pick up and transport the fish to a lab, or conduct a necropsy of the fish at the dock, Gonzalez said.The Ad Hoc Goliath Grouper Committee has debated whether there needs to be a legal harvest to better determine the population and life history of Goliath grouper.

Committee member John Sanchez proposes a limited take with a slot size of 32 to 48 inches to keep the larger breeding fish alive, he said. Sanchez did not propose any specific bag limit or a lottery system like Florida uses with alligator hunting.

“You leave the known aggregations alone,” said Sanchez, who fishes out of Homestead and serves on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. “These fish are everywhere in the Gulf.”

However, opponents to opening the fishery argue that Goliaths are not wiping out snapper and lobster populations.

A 2012 study by scientist Sarah Frias found that Goliath groupers are not the cause for declining lobster and snapper stocks. Overfishing is the main cause, she found.

Frias analyzed the food web of the Goliath grouper and other fish that feed on lobsters and snappers and concluded that the recovering trends of the Goliath grouper are not directly responsible for declining commercial landings of spiny lobster and gray snapper.

“There is no scientific data that they are actually having a negative impact on the snapper grouper population,” DeMaria said. “There is no defense for reopening them.”

 

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“They are not eating everything they are accused of,” Koenig added.

The species is still recovering from the 2010 cold snap, which had devastating effects on the juvenile populations of that species of fish and others, Koenig and DeMaria said.

Dive operators have argued that fishery managers also should take into account what effect opening the fishery would have on their businesses. They called for fishery managers to conduct an economic study on the subject.

Many dive operators specifically take their clients to wrecks and other areas inhabited by Goliath groupers as their sheer size amazes many divers.
Scientists agree, goliath grouper are not able to chase down fish for their typical meal. The angling, diving, and science communities need to come together and solve this issue. image dailymail.co.uk

In January, Upper Keys dive charter boat operator Spencer Slate made an impassioned plea to the Ad Hoc Goliath Grouper Committee to keep the fishery closed. He argued that unscrupulous fishermen and divers are already illegally harvesting the species. He showed committee members several large hooks and spear tips that he and other divers had extracted from the mouths and heads of Goliath groupers.

“They have become a major draw for divers,” Slate said. “I have people, who have years of dive experience, come up from a dive and the first thing they say is, ‘Did you see that Goliath. That was amazing.’ It is a wonderful experience for people to get close to them. ... We almost killed them off. Why are there people who want to take everything out of the ocean?”

No kill science

Federal and state fishery managers admit they do not know enough about the life history or the population numbers of the lumbering beast.

Koenig and other researchers are conducting critical research on Goliath groupers without killing them. He has been able to obtain life history data on the grouper by taking a small sample of the finray of the fish, and by placing tracking tags on it.

Some 600 Goliath grouper samples have been collected, 200 short of the goal fishery managers have said would be a statistically valid study, Koenig said. He argued that he could have the additional 200 by October 2015.

Koenig also argues that simply allowing fishermen to catch them without strict parameters on where and how many should be caught would do little good for science.

Many Goliath groupers start their lives in mangrove habitats before moving to coral reefs, wrecks and other areas offshore. He fears that fishermen who would be involved in obtaining data would target the wrecks and reefs only, as they are easy spots to catch the Goliath groupers, making the data not as representative of the species as a whole, and not as useful.

“We have done it in a rational and responsible way,” Koenig said.

Editor's Note: Tim O'hara lent this story to us, which was originally run in the Keys News. Below is a little bonus coverageTim sent along with info about goliath grouper and mercury poisoning.

Researchers have begun to raise red flags about mercury levels in Goliath grouper, as state and federal fishery managers debate allowing the fish as table fare.

The South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico fishery management councils and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) have formed a committee to discuss possibly allowing a limited recreational or scientific harvest of the grouper. The species has been limited to catch-and-release only fishing since 1990.

Researchers found high mercury concentrations in Goliath groupers to a point where the fish showed “lesions compatible with chronic mercury poisoning,” according to a 2013 study for the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

The higher levels of mercury are the end result of environmental poisoning through processes such as coal-burning plants and mines and other industrial uses, which seep mercury pollution into the waterways, according to officials. Smaller fish are contaminated and then are eaten by the larger fish.

“These concentrations were within or above the range known to cause direct health effects in fish after long-term exposure,” according to the study.

Scientists Douglas Adams and Christian Sonne reviewed Goliath groupers collected from 1991 through 2012 from tropical and subtropical waters of the southeastern United States with the majority of specimens collected from 2000 to 2012. The fish were collected from Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean waters off Florida. The fish were collected after they died during cold snaps, or were illegally caught and confiscated directly by FWC law enforcement officers.

The 2013 Florida Fish Advisory, published by the Florida Department of Health, advises that children and pregnant women should not eat blackfin tuna, cobia, barracuda, king mackerel and all species of shark. The agency advises that no one should eat king mackerel larger than 31 inches, or any coastal shark species bigger than 43 inches.

The study found that mercury levels in adult Goliath grouper are as high as, or higher, than those of these restricted species. Levels are so high that mercury-induced lesions were found in adult Goliath grouper’s liver, kidney and gills, said Chris Koenig, a retired Florida State University professor and a leading researcher in the field of Goliath grouper.

The study’s findings provide evidence that Goliath grouper is not a viable fishery species, at least not the adults, Koenig said.

“Adult Goliath grouper have little to no value as a fishery species because of high mercury content in the tissues, high vulnerability to fishing, and low production rates,” Koenig said. “Goliath grouper is becoming more valuable as a diver attraction, and some dive shop businesses are benefiting from their recovery.”

Lower Keys spear-fisherman Don DeMaria argued the Goliath grouper is listed as endangered everywhere throughout its range and has not recovered to acceptable levels.

“This fish is worth much more alive than dead to the recreational dive industry,” said DeMaria, citing an argument that many Florida Keys diver operators have continually made. “Mercury levels in mature Goliath grouper are above levels set by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) for safe consumption. Above all, no one has presented a valid or defensible argument as to why this species should be open to harvest at this point.”