PROTECTING GOLIATH

David M. Mokotoff

The first thing you notice is its immense size. It can be as big as a dumpster and rarely shows fear or gives up space. Despite its heft, it seems magically suspended in the water, often a few feet from the bottom, its fins barely moving, kicking up some bits of sand and shells from time to time. Most often it will be near its ambush point for food — under a rocky ledge or a jagged piece of a sunken ship. It just floats in the water and waits for food to pass by, and has no real predators other than man.

Goliath grouper, (Epinephelus itajara, Figure 1), wasn’t always called by this name. Before 2001 it was known as “Jewfish.” However, the American Fisheries Society changed the name, astutely observing that the name was “culturally insensitive.” The origins of the name Jewfish are uncertain and have a lot of mythology.

Fig 1. Goliath grouper (Epinephelus Itajara)

I visited Dr. Angela Collins who works for the University of Florida and asked her about it. It was a cool crisp day last December when I sat in her office. She’s a native Floridian, petite, thin, athletic, and an experienced SCUBA diver. Although somewhat dwarfed by the size of her desk as soon as she speaks you know she is an expert. So much so she wrote her doctoral thesis about goliath groupers. Her office is housed inside of a one-story wooden building off a main road in Bradenton, Florida and she has an encyclopedic command of the goliath’s history. She smiled, and told me her favorite theory about the name of the fish was biblical in origin, since the beast seemed “as big as the fish that swallowed Jonah.” (In fact, it was a “big fish” in the Old Testament and then a “whale” in the New Testament.) Many other theories abound.

As I asked her questions, she skirted between two computer screens to show me pictures, videos, and charts about their lives and habits. Figure 2 shows her with a caught and then released goliath grouper somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fig. 2. Dr. Angela Collins holding onto a goliath grouper

No matter what it is called, most agree that by the late 1980s this fish that inhabits primarily the Gulf of Mexico, Southern Atlantic and the Caribbean Oceans was in danger of extinction by over-fishing. Commercial and recreational fishermen, as well as spear divers, had decimated the population. Thus, by 1990 a moratorium was placed, forbidding all capturing or killing of the fish. Thankfully, it’s enjoying a revival now. In fact, it’s become so plentiful it’s become a nuisance to anglers. Fishermen have hundreds of fish stolen off their lines frequently by these behemoths.

Very little has been written for the non-scientific community about this unglamorous fish. It is not popular table fare like blue or yellow fin tuna. Nor is it as elusive and tasty as swordfish. Since it can no longer be harvested, it bears none of the controversy surrounding one of America’s most hotly debated fish for restaurants — the American Red Snapper. It doesn’t jump out of the water and dance on its tail like a Sailfish. And it doesn’t take off yards of fishing line at burning speeds like a Wahoo. In fact, most people would find details about its life and habits boring.

However, because I have personally lost dozens of fish to this behemoth’s mouth while fishing the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico over the past ten years, I became fascinated and at the same time irritated with its apparent resurgence. When a goliath grouper swallows your bait and hook you know it immediately. The fishing rod bends over and you cannot reel the object up very far, if at all. It is what we feel when we hook solid rock or pieces of shipwreck. Except when the fish decides to move, it moves you too. Often we have to cut our line or risk having rod and reel careen overboard.

Data suggests improvement in the stock of goliaths in the Gulf of Mexico. Having bounced back from the edge of extinction to the point of annoyance though there is one burning question. Why is this fish still protected?

The answer to that question depends upon your point of view. One man’s treasure is another man’s garbage. For hook and line fisherman like myself, or spear fishermen, they have stolen and eaten countless numbers of our catches. However, for the recreational diver, the attraction for viewing them in their natural habitat is endless. In fact, the goliath’s resurgence has helped to grow the recreational diving industry as well as ecotourism. Such opposite desires and nature of these sports may be difficult to reconcile.

I have been fishing the Gulf of Mexico, and other warm southern waters since 1996. My friends and I did not notice an uptick of goliaths eating our line-caught fish until about five to eight years ago. Data supports this since it took years for the endangered stock to rebuild. They are not prolific reproducers like snapper, jacks, and other reef fish. And around 2005, a prolonged fish-killing algae bloom, known as red tide for the color it tinges the water, destroyed many fish. So too did cold snaps of 2008 and 2010 in central and south Florida. It killed many of the adults offshore as well as the juveniles. The latter spend much of their childhood developing in the warm shallow Florida waters close to the nutrient-rich mangroves. The seemingly endless chain of “10,000 Islands” between the Everglades and the Florida Keys is a popular locale for the youthful goliaths to feed and grow, due to its many acres of mangroves.

My friends and I have lost many fish to goliaths at one of our favorite fishing spots next to the Egmont Fishing Channel. Finally, on a hot August day in 2014, we hooked our nemesis and successfully brought it to the side of our boat after a tortuous one-hour battle (Figure 3). We had often joked about landing and killing the monster if we could ever bring one up from its lair. However, after the exhausting battle, and finally being face to face with its magnificent size and strength, we unhooked it and watched as it splashed a large wave over us and descended. Some ideas and dreams are better left unfulfilled.

Fig. 3. Adult goliath grouper, estimated size of 300 pounds and six feet long, caught and released on August 8, 2014.

In order to know if a fish species is endangered or overfished, you must first count them. And if you think that is an impossible task, well you are partly correct. One technique is for wildlife regulators to interview recreational and commercial fishermen about their catches. Let’s just say that as rule most fishermen tend to exaggerate their catches. More objective techniques are to have surveyors catch and tag the species under study. Frequently tagged species are the red and gag grouper, sort of cousins to the goliath. They can be caught legally however only if abiding by open seasons and minimum size. If a tagged one is caught and released, you call the tag number in and

get a free Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission tee shirt. Most of the tagged fish are under size for harvesting and so it is illegal to kill or keep them. Buy reporting their location and size, their rate of development can be recorded and followed. However, since most goliaths are not caught tagging is of limited utility. Some goliath fish are harvested and dissected to learn about their age. Seine nets are deployed in shallow areas to gather larval and juvenile fish and generate data.

But goliath grouper are different. First, there are far fewer of them than most other reef fish. Second, they tend to stay put but will travel hundreds of miles for spawning. So it seemed to me that simply diving on a number of their favorite reefs or wrecks could be the best way to do an accounting. I found in the SEDAR 2016 report that this task is delegated to REEF, (Reef Environmental and Educational Foundation), an independent non-government organization. Since there are fewer goliaths compared to other fish, and they tend to stay put except for spawning in late summer, this would seem to be the easiest and most obvious. But they do often hide and may retreat when confronted by bubbles from a SCUBA diver’s regulator, so this may cause under-counting. However, counts provide only one piece of the puzzle that is a stock assessment. Age distribution, reproductive parameters, and mortality estimates are also utilized.

Whatever methods are used, all seem to agree that the goliath grouper population is no longer endangered. Indeed, at the conclusion of the 2016 SEDAR report, it is stated as such: “Both models (of determining the size of the population) suggest that goliaths are no longer in the overfished condition.” However, regulatory authorities are reluctant to re-open the species to fishing again, fearing a return to the pre-1990 decimation. In a paper published by REEF in January 2015, they interviewed anglers to see how much they would be willing to pay for a permit allowing them to harvest the fish. The conclusion was “…that about half of Florida’s recreational anglers believe that the ban on goliath grouper should be lifted, with many anglers reporting that they feel ‘there are too many goliath grouper and that their populations need to be controlled.’ These anglers are willing to pay between $34 and $79 for the right to harvest one goliath grouper in Florida.” [1]

Gary Sanchez is a native Floridian who began diving without his parents knowledge at age 8. He initially began “free diving” (diving without SCUBA gear) when he was 12. At this young age he also shot a barracuda. Later he transitioned to fishing with SCUBA gear that allowed him to dive deeper and stay underwater longer.

However, this hobby is not without risks. Other than the obvious one of attaching yourself to a string holding bleeding and freshly killed fish in an ocean full of sharks, the other career limiting disease is decompression sickness, or the “bends.” Staying down too long or coming up too fast are the most common causes. Gary suffered repeated episodes and his doctors told him to never dive with compressed air again or risk suffering irreparable physical harm. He chose therefore to return to his roots of free diving. He has won multiple free water spear fishing diving awards including the prestigious St. Pete Open.

In speaking with him, he feels the goliath grouper “problem” began shortly after the ban. The fish quickly learned they could not be shot and hence became more aggressive.

“If you left a stringer of fish on the bottom while still shooting you could be guaranteed a goliath would snatch it,” he told me during a recent conversation. He thinks the hook and line fishermen have inadvertently contributed to the goliath’s aggression as well.

“If a fisherman hooks a fish,” he said, “ and starts reeling it up towards a boat at the surface, it didn’t take long for the goliaths to learn that a dangling meal was there for the taking with minimal effort.”

He agrees that many in the spear fishing community would be willing to pay for a “tag” or privilege to start harvesting goliath groupers again. He finally related a story that casts some doubt on the accuracy of direct diving counting or observation of goliath numbers.

“I recently free dove after a group of SCUBA divers went down on a wreck and they said they only saw three goliaths. I free dove down and was able to count 20, so many are hiding from the divers’ bubbles.”

However, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmons, who is the Director of Science at REEF, disagrees with this observation. She estimates that about 80% of their reported observations of goliath are divers who use SCUBA gear and therefore generate exhaled air bubbles. Unlike other reef fish, a few bubbles do not easily spook these monsters. Therefore she feels REEF’s reported goliath numbers are accurate. When I asked her and other members of REEF their opinions about revoking the ban, they had the same answer. Since they are only an underwater observation data collection source, they did not wish to get involved in the debate.

Don DeMaria however is quite vocal in maintaining the ban. Originally a commercial spear fisherman, he noticed in the 1980’s the goliath grouper population in the Florida Keys went from plentiful to almost non-existent. He soon became a conservationist and was instrumental in persuading government regulators to ban their killing entirely in 1990. After 27 years, he feels the same.

“First you must understand that the goliath grouper’s level of mercury in the flesh is extremely high making it unsafe for most human consumption. So if you are not going to kill if for food, then why hunt the fish at all?” he asked me during a recent phone conversation. Knowing that the fish are huge, I asked if the mercury content per pound was greater than other known fish with dangerously high mercury content, such as King Mackerel, shark, tilefish, and swordfish. He did not know but told me to call the country’s leading scientist on the subject, Chris Koenig.

Dr. Koenig is a Marine Research Ecologist at Florida State University (FSU). Along with Dr. Felicia Coleman, they formed the Coleman and Koenig Laboratory at FSU, to study how human interactions affect the life and habits of reef fish, and in particular goliath grouper. Dr. Koenig has authored dozens of scientific papers on this fish. When I asked him if per ounce or pound the mercury levels were that much higher than the other high mercury species, he simply said, “They are among the highest. In fact there is some data to suggest in large adults the mercury itself might be killing them.” In fact the levels are well above the safe limit for ingestion recommended by the FDA.

It is clear to me that this tension between fisherman, recreational divers, and government agencies will not be easily solved. The recreational diving industry depends upon them now for continued growth and success. Yet recreational fishermen don’t want to pay charter captains good money to find fish and then have them ingested by a monster they can’t land or keep. It has also become clear to me that despite fishermen beliefs, the goliaths are not “clearing the reefs of fish.” They are opportunistic feeders and don’t normally eat other grouper or snappers unless they are injured or at the end of a fishing line or spear. Examination of their stomach contents show crabs, lobsters, and slow moving fish. There will likely be years of political negotiations, lobbying, studies, and meetings. At the end, I could see that some type of limited harvesting re-instituted that would satisfy, at least to some degree, all the concerned parties.

[1] Lifting the goliath grouper ban: Angler perspectives and willingness to pay. Shideler, et al. Fisheries Research, Volume 16 (January 2015):156–165.

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David Mokotoff

David Mokotoff

David Mokotoff is a retired MD. Passionate about writing, reading, fishing, and food, https://tinyurl.com/y7bjoqkd