Goliath grouper sparking giant debate
It's a rare skipper who has fished any inshore reef along Florida's west coast in the past decade and not expressed the same lament as captain Scott Moore of Anna Maria. "Some places you pull up to catch snook or permit, you can't get one off the bottom because there's a 200-pound goliath grouper gulping it down," Moore said. "They'll eat a 15-pounder like it's a sardine. "There are just too many of them." That's the sentiment of many reef anglers, who say 21 years of closed seasons on goliaths (formerly known as jewfish) have resulted in thousands of barrel-sized giants gulping down snapper, grouper and anything else that will fit down their enormous mouths.The species is known to reach weights of 800 pounds and lengths approaching seven feet, so pretty much anything that swims can be a target. Some anglers say a limited harvest, perhaps modeled after the $50 tarpon tag, would allow enough harvest to thin out the goliaths and eliminate them as a problem on popular inshore reefs. "Maybe an angler could take one a year with the permit, or maybe have a drawing for who could take one," Moore suggested. However, fisheries biologists generally disagree that goliaths have any significant impact on reef fish size or numbers. And though the fish are thriving along Florida's west coast, they're scarce or non-existent elsewhere. Chris Koenig and Felicia Coleman of Florida State University, two of the world's most-recognized authorities on reef fishes, say mangroves are the issue. In their most recent paper on the species, the scientists point out that though Goliaths spawn offshore at depths of around 150 feet, the only larvae that survive are those carried into mangrove country by the tides. The young fish spend the first four or five years of their lives in the backcountry, and Florida's west coast is the only place in the U.S. where there's a significant amount of mangrove shoreline. "It's a potential bottleneck for goliaths," Koenig said. Further, the FSU studies — some 5,000 dives as well as thousands of samplings of stomach contents — indicate that goliaths almost never eat other groupers, and that only 3 percent of their diet is snappers, mostly mangrove snapper consumed during the inshore period of their lives. "Where goliaths are most abundant on the offshore reefs, other species of grouper and snapper are also most abundant," the scientists point out, discounting the idea that the larger grouper are eating all the keeper-sized fish that anglers like to target. Koenig said crabs and small bottom fishes make up 63 percent of the typical diet of goliaths. "Goliath grouper evolved over millions of years in balance with the other reef species in a healthy population," Koenig said. "Exotics like lionfish can have a negative impact on native species, but in general native predators do not." The concern among fishery managers is that because goliaths are so easy to target, opening even a limited harvest could quickly devastate the population. They gather in predictable places and stay put throughout their lives, except for brief offshore forays to spawn, and they're generally easy to tempt with a large bait — or an XXL bait. Captain Bucky Dennis, who catches a bunch of them at Boca Grande Pass, often uses a 10-pound ray as bait. The fish are known to live nearly 40 years, and it takes a long time for the adult giants to be replaced. Under current rules, Goliaths are legal targets for catch-and-release, and they are not to be brought into the boat for photos. Biologists say their weight tends to damage internal organs if they're not supported by water, so it's important to keep them afloat while the hook is removed. Coleman's team has tagged dozens of goliaths and continues to seek migration and growth info. If you catch a tagged goliath, you can report the information to [email protected]. To read the complete scientific report on goliaths, visit www.bio.fsu.edu/coleman_lab/goliath_grouper.php#status.