Florida’s wildlife commissioners Thursday shot down a move to allow anglers to catch and keep goliath grouper, the enormous, slow-moving fish that have been protected in state and federal waters since 1990.
"We’re not looking to have a harvest for the foreseeable future," Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Chairman Bo Rivard said after hearing from 56 speakers, of whom 55 were opposed to it.
Among the scores of speakers wearing T-shirts that said "Save the Goliath Grouper" was a contingent of Eckerd College students who said they woke up about 3:30 a.m. to drive from St. Petersburg to Fort Lauderdale for the public hearing.
They were led by Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, adviser to Eckerd’s diving club, which he jokingly called "Scuby Jew." Rosenthal also joked that his presence had added resonance given the grouper’s politically incorrect original name of "jewfish."
"The sea is God’s," Rosenthal told commissioners in urging them to reject what was being called a "limited harvest" of the big fish. "The grouper is a wonder of creation."
Other speakers had more mundane reasons for arguing against catch-and-keep of the aptly-named goliaths, which can grow to be 8 feet long. The big fish are a big draw for divers who come from around the globe to see them and take pictures of them.
Instead of loosening restrictions, "you should put more protections in place for them, like you do for manatees," said Tom Ingram, a Florida native who heads the national Diving Equipment and Marketing Association. "They’re both slow-moving, and they both attract divers to Florida."
Chris Koenig, a retired Florida State University biologist, said he and his students had put in 20 years studying goliath groupers. He pointed out that many are so full of dangerous mercury that they can’t be eaten, which means the people who catch them would be doing it strictly to display a trophy.
"Why are we even considering this?" he shouted at the commissioners.
The proposal grew out of complaints by some anglers that, after having once been in decline, grouper populations had rebounded in some areas to the point that they were eating too much. They viewed the goliaths as a nuisance, and even a danger to some divers, said Jessica McCawley of the wildlife commission’s staff.
The state currently allows catch-and-release of the goliath groupers, but no one is allowed to keep them to show off their big catch. Some anglers, she said, liked the idea of catching such an enormous trophy.
But when the word spread that the Wildlife Commission was considering letting anglers catch and keep 100 goliath grouper, McCawley said, more than 56,000 people signed petitions against it. The proposal would have applied only to near-shore waters. Goliath grouper are off limits to even catch-and-release fishing in federal waters.
More than one speaker Thursday compared the proposal to the Wildlife Commission’s wildlly unpopular 2015 decision to allow the state’s first bear hunt in 20 years. It has not had a second one.
McCawley and Gil McRae, director of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Laboratory in St. Petersburg, told commissioners that scientists don’t know enough about the goliath grouper to do a proper "stock assessment" of the population. No one knows how long they live, for one thing.
For another, McRae said, goliath groupers are what scientists call "protogynous hermaphrodites." That means they begin life as females and some later switch to males. That gender-switching makes it difficult to figure out their potential to produce more fish if some are caught by humans.
Despite complaints about them seizing hooked fish, McRae’s lab has found that their diet is composed mainly of crustaceans and smaller-sized fish. And despite their size, they can be susceptible to mass die-offs from such factors as toxic Red Tide algae blooms and cold snaps. The long, severe cold spell in 2009-2010 resulted in the deaths of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of goliath grouper.
While the fish remains extremely rare in other parts of the globe, it has staged something of a comeback in Florida waters, although it still remains absent from some places where it used to thrive.
"The species is not recovered," said wildlife commissioner Mike Sole, former head of the state Department of Environmental Protection. Based on the scientific findings, he said, "I don’t see that it’s viable to have even a limited harvest."
Other commissioners, including Rivard, said they hoped McRae and his scientists could report back soon on a way to get a better handle on the population so they could reconsider the ban on catching them, perhaps in the next five years.
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.