For nearly two decades, it has been illegal to harvest goliath grouper, a long-lived fish species indigenous to Florida's reefs that can weigh up to 800 pounds. This week, conservationists have reason to celebrate; thanks to their efforts, the ban remains in place. But that could change in the near future.
Decades ago goliath groupers, a curious and slow-moving species that historically ranged from Florida to Brazil, became a popular fishing target, which, coupled with habitat loss, sent the species into rapid decline. Harvest was first restricted, then prohibited entirely in 1990. In 1994, the International Union for Conservation of Nature added the goliath grouper to the list of critically endangered species.
Since then the goliaths have slowly recovered, though the speed of their recovery is subject to conflicting opinions. In 2006, NOAA Fisheries removed it from the "species of special concern" list; it is still considered critically endangered by IUCN. Many believe that the species lost much ground it had gained in the record freeze of 2010, and has also been impacted by red tide, poaching, etc. Since 2004, three attempts to assess the stock have failed to pass peer reviews. Scientists remain unsure of how many goliath grouper there are.
In the last few years, a handful of anglers have begun complaining about goliaths snatching game fish off their lines, and blaming them for low yields on reefs popular for fishing, claiming that goliaths are eating up all the reef fish. Advocates believe that overfishing, pollution and habitat loss, rather than predation by goliaths, have decimated reef life. Scientists' analysis of goliaths' stomach contents have found that the vast majority of the grouper's diet consists of baitfish or crustaceans, rather than gamefish, the Miami Herald reports. Further complicating the issue is a finding that mercury levels are too high in goliaths for humans to safely consume them, which conservationists believes calls into question the purpose of harvesting them in the first place, except as a trophy, which many harshly criticize.
Nevertheless, facing increased pressure from fishers, last year Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began considering whether to reopen harvesting goliath grouper.
Conservationists, among them many divers, for whom the goliaths are a treasured sight—with some companies charging upwards of $100 per diver for an excursion to view them—kicked into high gear, spreading the word and encouraging likeminded individuals to attend the public workshops on the subject FWC held around the state last year. One Protest's Change.org petition, "Stop the FWC from Reopening Fishing of the Critically Endangered Goliath Grouper," garnered over 60,000 signatures.
Last October, roughly a dozen people, the vast majority of them divers, attended an FWC workshop in Jacksonville. During a survey at the conclusion of this workshop, Folio Weekly observed that only one person in attendance was willing to reopen harvesting goliaths.
FWC postponed their decision on the matter more than once before Thursday's vote. According to the Miami Herald, scientists, divers and other conservationists packed the room as FWC declined to reopen the harvest of goliath groupers—with a catch: They asked staff scientists to generate another report by years' end. If that report finds goliath groupers have recovered, fishing will resume.
The fight may not be over, but conservationists have reason to celebrate today.