Goliath Grouper Catches Coming?

A remarkable fisheries recovery has been developing for years—too many years, I’d say.

I give you the mighty goliath groupers, which have become so prolific in many areas that they’re eating us out of house and home. It’s become a common annoyance to spar with a snapper or trout only to end up with an empty hook and a prodigious swirl right where your fillet-to-be last swam.

Goliaths often own the place. Many sportsmen believe the goliaths have created imbalances due to the total protection they’ve enjoyed for two decades.

Said one angler: “After all, they’re one of a dozen types of groupers and I don’t think the others appreciate all this special treatment for goliaths if no longer necessary.”

Unfortunately, stock assessments for this species resemble a Catch 44—that’s twice the folly of a Catch 22. The bewildering talk goes like this: The fact that Goliath grouper have been protected with no possession allowed for 21 years is the rationale for maintaining no possession due to fishery managers not having any for research. The “insufficient data” propaganda thus carries the underlying message that since goliaths have long ceased to be a commercial “market fish” of interest, they’ve received the short end of the stick when it comes to allocating research dollars—a face slap to recreational anglers for sure.

Luiz Barbieri, who oversees marine fisheries for the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI), headed the most recent assessment of Goliath grouper. However, the 92-page report was subsequently dissed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)—the latter to which the FWRI directly reports.

“The councils were concerned with our using a non-traditional ‘catch-free’ model instead of a maximum sustainable yield approach,” said Barbieri. “But with practically no landings data for over 20 years and no clear benchmarks in order to establish an acceptable biological catch figure, it’s really all we could do.”

That said, what about all the funds the government has expended for tagging and research programs on other “non-market” fish like tarpon and billfish? It would sure be a lot easier to catch and tag slower-moving Goliath.

But beyond the state and federal fishery managers fumbling the Goliath grouper ball, how can the never-ending reports from Florida’s fishermen about constant Goliath encounters be disregarded? Even the FWC website extols the Goliath population increases statewide while maintaining that everyone should wait until at least 2020 before a limited fishery is considered.

Fortunately, the FWC is reconsidering. At its recent February meeting, staff was directed to “… closely monitor the recovery of Florida’s Goliath grouper population and explore future management strategies as soon as possible.”

The FWC placed three options on the table: 1) maintain the status quo, 2) allow a limited fishery that’s tightly controlled and possibly area specific, or 3) go with a more liberal approach via estimated catch levels and consider commercial take.

Open With Care

Florida Sportsman favors a very limited opening for non-commercial fishing for Goliath grouper, with the following provisions:

*No commercial sale or spear fishing
*Catch-and-release only during the federal shallow water grouper season closures
*A conservative daily or seasonal possession limit, perhaps one Goliath per person or boat, whichever is less
*Minimum size at least 24 inches

We feel certain that these measures would prevent the overexploitation that depleted this species previously.
As with all fishery management, adjustments can be made along the way while allowing the fishing public to be rewarded for more than 20 years of patience.

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