Goliath grouper making a comeback in Florida, so let’s kill ‘em

May 27, 2021 7:00 am

Biologists take samples from goliath grouper before releasing the massive fish. Credit: FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

This is a fish story. A really BIG fish story.

Florida’s waters are as full of odd creatures as our streets are. We’ve got walking catfish, which are both invasive and disturbing to watch; the pig-snouted (but delicious) hogfish; and some weird-looking sea cucumbers that are valuable because some folks believe them to be an aphrodisiac.

But if size matters to you, then let’s talk about the aptly named goliath grouper. Mature ones can reach eight feet long and weigh so much you wouldn’t want one to fall on you. It would be like being clobbered with a falling piano. (And as REO Speedwagon taught us, you can tune a piano but you can’t tuna fish.)

Back when my kids were little, I often took them to the Florida Aquarium, where they would play in the outdoor splash zone until their fingers got all pruny. Then I’d get them dried off and we’d roam around marveling at the sharks and seahorses. When we got to the tank with the goliath groupers, though, we would always stop, awestruck. They were so huge we felt as if we’d been hit with a shrink ray.

Yet these giants are nothing to be scared of.

“They’re curious and somewhat friendly,” Luiz Barbieri, who leads the marine fisheries research program at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, told me this week.

Researcher Sarah Frias-Torres poses with Grace the goliath grouper. Credit: Mark Eakin

Goliath groupers tend to stick in one offshore area and not roam around, making them easy to find. Sightseeing divers who frequently visit those areas have become fascinated with them, to the point of giving some of them names like backyard pets — Grace, Braveheart, and Pokémon, to name a few. Tourists from around the globe travel to Florida and pay good money just to dive in and snap selfies with them.

I guess you could say those divers are hooked on hanging with these star fish (pauses for readers to finish rolling their eyes).

“They’re these gentle giants,” a scientist named Sarah Frias-Torres, whose Twitter handle is “@grouperdoc” because she’s been studying goliath grouper since 2003, told me. “Encountering one of them on a dive is the most amazing wildlife encounter you can have in Florida.”

Their friendliness, though, makes them vulnerable to their only predator: humans.

“In the 1970s and ’80s,” columnist Ed Killer reported recently in, “divers easily harvested them using powerheads on spearguns, essentially underwater .357 magnums. Boaters mounted winches on gunwales to land the big fish. Fish houses paid as little as 40 cents per pound and a 300-pound fish could yield platter loads of fried grouper fingers.”

I talked to a veteran commercial fisherman named Don DeMaria, who years ago used to spearfish for goliath groupers up and down the Florida coast so he could sell them. Then he started noticing they were harder to find. And he saw flagrant abuse by anglers — half-dead fish swimming around with the shafts of spears sticking out of them, for instance.

“It just got out of control,” he recalled.

To save them from going extinct, in 1990 the agency then known as the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission banned killing and possession of goliath groupers, a ban that remains in place to this day. (Yes, the ban on catching them even applies to the one called Pokémon.) Two federal fisheries agencies also imposed bans, so they were protected in both state and federal waters.

Leaving them alone for three decades has revived the goliath grouper population, Barbieri said — or so it appears. No one knows exactly how many there were before 1990, nor how many are swimming around now, he said. It’s just that they seem to be showing up more than they used to, particularly around artificial reefs.

“This is a success story,” Frias-Torres agreed. “We have managed them back from the brink of extinction. We need to celebrate our success.”

And how would Floridians like to celebrate? By catching some of those big ol’ goliath groupers the way they did back in the ’80s!

Unable to resist the lure of a forbidden fish, these folks have for years been clamoring for the marine commission’s successor, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, to let them go back to killing goliath groupers.

After years of refusing to take the bait, so to speak, this month the commissioners finally said yes to letting people “harvest” the groupers again.

“I think the time has come, and I think we should look at where we’ve come in 30 years with this fishery,” Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto, a Coral Gables developer, said. “Believe it or not, it’s another great conservation story. It really is. We should be applauding ourselves.” Remind me not to invite Commissioner “Salute It By Slaying It” Barreto to my next birthday party.

The commissioners voted, 6-1, to tell their staff to come back in October with a formal proposal for what they called “a limited harvest.”

Normally the word “harvest” means reaping a crop you’ve spent a lot of time tending so it would grow. In the case of the goliath grouper, “harvest” means “killing that ginormous fish to get a trophy for my wall.”

“A wonder of creation”

There were calls to end the goliath grouper fishing ban in 2001, 2011, and again in 2018. That’s because some people don’t appreciate goliath groupers the way those eco-tour divers do.

Instead of “cute” they use words like “lazy” and “irritating.” (Sounds like my high school principal talking about … uh, someone.)

Goliath grouper. Credit: FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

“Anglers fishing for snook, snappers, cobia and other species routinely tell of how they were reeling their catch to the surface when a Volkswagen-sized goliath grouper grabbed their fish and snapped their line,” the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported in 2001.

How often does that happen? According to scientists, rarely. The groupers usually eat crabs and small fish, not what anglers are angling for. Nevertheless, some folks have repeatedly used those “that-fish-stole-my-fish” anecdotes to argue for an end to the ban.

The hardest push to lift the ban came three years ago — and it produced the biggest push-back. When word spread that the wildlife agency was considering letting anglers catch and keep 100 goliath groupers, some 56,000 people signed petitions against it.

I covered that 2018 wildlife commission meeting. More than 50 people showed up to talk about the big fish, nearly all of them opposed to any “harvest,” even a limited one.

Many speakers wore T-shirts that said, “Save the Goliath Grouper,” because they were sure lifting the ban would doom the species. Among them was a contingent from Eckerd College’s diving club, including their adviser, Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, who jokingly referred to the club as “Scuby Jew.” He pointed out how appropriate it was that he was there to speak for a species that was known, prior to a 2001 name change, as the jewfish.

“The sea is God’s,” the rabbi told commissioners. “The grouper is a wonder of creation.”

More than one speaker in that hearing compared lifting the ban to the commissioners’ controversial decision in 2015 to hold the state’s first bear hunt in 21 years. The hunters slaughtered the bears so fast — even killing mother bears still nursing their young — that the state had to end the week-long hunt after just two days. The commission has never held a second one.

In that 2018 meeting, the commissioners scuttled all talk of lifting the ban. They did so in part because the state’s scientists couldn’t answer the most basic questions about the species, such as how long they live or how many there are.

There’s a theory that, like other groupers, some goliath groupers switch genders from female to male, making them what scientists call “protogynous hermaphrodites” (which is also the name of my favorite indie rock band).

But nobody can say for sure. Without knowing how many female goliath groupers there are, biologists find it difficult to determine their potential to produce more fish.

When I was talking to Barbieri, the state biologist, I asked him if anything had changed since 2018. Had he and his colleagues solved any of those mysteries about “the wonder of creation” that had kept the commissioners from approving a “harvest” back then?

No, he said. The goliath grouper remains as big a mystery as it was three years ago.

Seems to me that all that’s changed is that now a majority of the commissioners — gubernatorial appointees — want to kill a giant fish, no matter what the science says. This, notes Frias-Torres, despite the fact that the tourist-friendly gargantuans are more valuable to the economy alive than dead, because you can visit a live one over and over, but you can kill it only once.

‘A unique recreational fishing opportunity’

According to independent scientists like Frias-Torres, goliath groupers are not really doing as well as they might seem.

The juveniles live amid mangroves. Sea level rise and erosion, plus humans with saws, have been cutting into the state’s coastal mangroves so we have fewer now than we used to.

Adult groupers sometimes hang out near Florida’s coral reefs — but the reefs are in the middle of an ecological disaster. A plague called stony coral tissue-loss disease has swept through the reef the way a hurricane sweeps through a Florida trailer park. And speaking of disasters, grouper are — like manatees — acutely vulnerable to toxic algae blooms, which we’re experiencing again this summer.

Speaking of toxic things, eating them is bad for you now. Air pollution that’s settled into the water has accumulated in the fish that the goliath groupers eat, so now the grouper contains a tremendous amount of mercury.

Goliath groupers more than 5 feet long contain a level of mercury considered dangerous to humans, Barbieri said, so “if the commission decides to move forward with a harvest we would work with the state Department of Health to develop seafood consumption advisories. … It’s something the public will have to be careful about.”

Anyway, he said, they don’t want to wipe out the older, larger fish. Most likely they will propose limiting the catch to fish between 47 and 67 inches long.

Got that? You probably shouldn’t eat them, and you won’t be able to catch the really big ones for a trophy, and we don’t really know enough about them to say what damage there might be on the population if you catch a bunch.

So why lift the ban, exactly? I keep casting around for the reasoning here, but it looks like a mistake on an epic scale (sorry, I’m hooked on puns).

The commission’s staff told their bosses that this is a chance to “provide a unique recreational fishing opportunity in Florida state waters.” Know why it’s unique? Because the goliath grouper, which used to range across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, has been wiped out throughout most of that range. Florida is close to their last stand.

And now their supposed protectors want to let some of them be killed. Here’s my proposal: If the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission goes ahead with this, we should petition for a change in the agency’s name to take the word “conservation” out of it, so no one will get confused about their purpose. Maybe we could replace it with “Harvesting.”

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.