During the afternoon of Monday, May 12, 2021 the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) will provide a review and discussion of goliath grouper, including biology, updates on ongoing research, and stakeholder opinions. The staff will seek Commission approval on regarding steps for goliath grouper management in state waters, including whether to prepare a draft rule for limited harvest.
The fishery for goliath grouper was closed in 1990 when species numbers dropped below acceptable levels due to limited habitat and fishing pressure. Since then, the population has grown in abundance leading to increased interactions with divers and fishermen. In addition to the moratorium on harvest, goliath grouper numbers have been assisted by Florida’s artificial reef program and the ongoing recovery of the juvenile grouper’s Florida mangrove habitat which increased from just under 50,000 acres in 2004 to an estimated 300,000 acres today.
Recreational Fishermen who enjoy supplying their kitchen with wild caught fish are likely excited at the prospect of sampling goliath grouper as table fare. It’s important we realize the goliath grouper fishery is different than other fisheries requiring a unique management approach for conservation success. While the Goliath groupers’ positive trend is expected to continue, approaches will be tailored to address goliath’s vulnerability to natural mortality events and overfishing due to their life history characteristics and behaviors.
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Likely the implementation of any harvest will be limited and highly regulated due to necessity. Individual fish are sedentary, typically inhabiting only a small area, like a single reef, making them susceptible to exploitation. Despite small home range, goliath grouper will travel significant distances to visit spawning aggregations, with at least one fish having traveled from southern Georgia to a spawning site off southeast Florida. Since the goliath grouper aggregation recur annually in the same areas it makes them more vulnerable to fishing. Goliath grouper are also particularly susceptible to large-scale mortality events caused by red tide and cold weather.
FWC will use five metrics to evaluate Florida’s stock of goliath grouper. The first metric used will be a relative index of abundance, with the goal of long-term stability or increase in juvenile and adult fish. The second metric will include the abundance goliath grouper occurring on natural reefs, with a goal for increased adult density in natural habitat rather than artificial habitat. Genetic diversity is the third metric, with a goal of increasing diversity while reducing inbreeding. The fourth metric has a goal of an increased genetic “effective population size, effectively establishing a minimum ideal population size from a genetic perspective. The final metric, population age structure, includes a management goal to increase the presence of older fish in the population.
The complexity of the goliath grouper fishery makes it yet unclear as to whether FWC will implement a regulated harvest of goliath grouper. As with many species, there will probably be competing interest groups advocating for and against a harvest. Regardless of the short-term outcome, the successful recovery of the goliath grouper population should be celebrated by all.
Jim Hasley is a host and contributor with Under Pressure Outdoors and serves as an active volunteer in the Florida Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s been plying the woods and waters of Florida and the Southeast for decades; he loves family, friends and food. For questions or comments, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org