On 3 March 2022, at a public meeting in Tampa, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to institute a goliath grouper season. This will be the first time the giant fish will be allowed to be harvested in the United States since 1990.
The species, which can grow to over 800 pounds, suffered immensely under unmitigated commercial and recreational harvest. However, rebounding populations have produced two very passionate sides to the harvest argument. Goliaths are huge and usually described as a Volkswagen Beetle floating around off the reef. Spearfishing in the Gulf and seeing one of these behemoths rise off a wreck to try and steal a catch gives credence to this analogy. Their size, appetite, and penchant for boldly taxing anglers and spearos has given them a reputation for eating everything on a reef.
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Opponents of the harvest say that they aren’t the menace they are portrayed to be. They are normally a slow-moving fish and dive charters make good money taking people to swim next to them. One commenter at the meeting in Tampa showed pictures of one she had named Wilbur. Opponents also argued that the population is not recovered enough to sustain a harvest and that the science isn’t sound enough to say for certain that they would be safe. Personally, I just see the same unsound argument put forth by wolf and grizzly advocates.
The commission was quick to point out the actual science of the harvest and concessions have been made throughout the process. Make no mistake. A lot of thought was put into this, and the final rule is nothing short of the definition of compromise. Firstly, this won’t be a free for all. To be able to harvest a goliath, one must obtain a permit through a lottery system. The application is $10, and the permit is $150 for residents and $500 for non-residents. Only 200 total tags will be available with a total harvest limit of 50 fish from inside Everglades National Park. Hook-and-line will be the only legal method of take. One last crucial piece of regulation is the slot limit of 24” to 36” inches.
As I said before, these are a compromise. The minimum length protects smaller juveniles most susceptible to natural mortality while the maximum protects the big tourism fish. Most fish within that size range inhabit inshore waters. This, along with catch-and-release only regulations and other closed areas protect important tourism and spawning sites. These size limits do not satisfy many anglers as they do nothing about the larger adults said to plague the reefs. The harvest limit is also not expected to negatively impact the greater population. The price is another point of contention. Admittedly, $160-$510 is steep for a 3-foot fish. Most people would rather pay that for the chance at one of the giants.
So, you have two sides. The protectionists who want to keep the goliath totally off-limits and those who feel that this new season isn’t enough. Then, there are those of us in the middle. Yes, I would like to see a higher slot limit. I would also like to see spearfishing on the table. But this is a step in the right direction. The goliath grouper is a conservation success story. The fact that we have enough to even discuss a harvest is testament to that. The needle is moving in the right direction when it could have very easily gone the other way. The season will start in 2023 and will run from 1 March to 31 May in state waters only except those in Martin County south through the Atlantic coast of the Keys, all the St. Lucie River and its tributaries, and Dry Tortugas National Park.