Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Vote Unanimously to Lift Protections
By Sea Save Foundation
The Atlantic Goliath Grouper, Epinephelus itajara, is listed as being vulnerable by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). These fish can grow to lengths of 8.2 feet and weigh up half a ton. Despite their large size, the fish are gentle giants, easily approached by divers, and prey upon slow-moving venomous and poisonous fish and invertebrates
The oldest Goliath Grouper, calculated by reading growth rings on ear bones, was 37 years old. But this was done when the largest and oldest fish were extinct. New projections suggest this species lifespan can be up to 80 years old. Juveniles grow in fringing red mangrove shorelines for about 8 years, then migrate from the mangrove nursery to the adult reef habitat at 4 feet in length. As a long lived, slow to mature fish, this species is highly susceptible to rapid population decline due to overfishing of juveniles, adults and spawning aggregations, habitat loss (both mangroves and reefs), bycatch from industrial fisheries, recreational catch and release, water pollution, red tides and atypical cold fronts.
On Wednesday October 6, 2021, the seven Commissioners of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Robert Spottswood, Rodney Barreto, Steven Hudson, Gary Nicklaus, Gary Lester, Sonya Rood and Michael W. Sole voted unanimously to approve a proposed draft rule for a “highly regulated limited harvest” of these vulnerable fish. The Commissioners asked for changes in the rule language, increasing, even more, the negative impact on the Goliath Grouper population, and will approve the new rule during the March 2022 meeting. The kill fishery will start in 2023.
The Goliath Grouper is vulnerable to overfishing. Commercial extinction in the 1980s led to total protection from harvest in U.S. waters beginning in 1990 through a federal and state moratorium.
Prior to the October 2021 FWC meeting, Sea Save Foundation led an educational and advocacy campaign during which time over 20,000 emails were sent to FWC Commissioners. They were urged to review the science and to also closely examine the economic value this remarkable fish brings to the Florida SCUBA diving industry.
Sea Save Foundation reached out to Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres, a marine ecologist doing research on Goliath Grouper since 2003, to get her reaction to the decision. Frias-Torres has studied the species extensively for 18 years with her first peer-reviewed paper on this species published in 2006.
“Because I am a scientist, I can only use data. Diving ecotourism brings much-needed income to Florida. This is of critical value. If we talk about science, it was shocking to see the amount of science denial at today’s meeting and throughout the process. These people are entrusted to manage Florida’s wildlife. How can they so blatantly ignore science?
First, Florida’s mangrove habitat, and I am talking about healthy, fringing red mangrove habitat, not new growth, is disappearing. We had only 3 critical nursery areas: the mangroves of Ten Thousand Islands in SW Florida, the Florida Bay side of the Florida Keys, and the Indian River Lagoon. This third area is now gone. I have studied the Indian River Lagoon since 1997, once the most biodiverse estuary in the USA, and now, that whole ecosystem has collapsed due to pollution. So we only have two mangrove nurseries left for Goliath Grouper.” continued Frias-Torres.
“Studies show that the number of fish present at the spawning aggregation sites we have left is decreasing, compared to what we had 10 years ago. What is even more concerning is that FWC Commissioners are comparing today’s juvenile fish counts to numbers collected in 2010. The artifact renders this comparison ridiculous. In 2010 we experienced extremely low temperatures. Scientists estimate that 90% of the juvenile Goliath Groupers living in mangrove habitat were killed so why is the FWC using this year as the baseline? It does not make any sense.”
Sea Save Foundation director, Georgienne Bradley, added that “it appeared the decision was made before today’s meeting was convened. The FWC did not discuss scientific data. This is a clear case of shifting baselines. Numbers that would have been acceptable 25 years ago have now been normalized. The vast swaths of mangroves, aka nurseries, once commonplace in Florida have been developed and juvenile habitat has been decreased by 80% from 25 years ago. Even legal catch and release programs targeting other fish, move the needle. Goliath Groupers are inadvertently caught and sustain exhaustion, mouth and eye trauma and often can be seen swimming with hooks still impaled and fishing line in tow. The increased population in Florida adds additional pressure.”
Sea Save Foundation spearheaded an email campaign and over 20,000 communications were sent to commission members. One Goliath Grouper is worth about $500 through the sale of the lottery. The same fish is worth over $36,000 to the SCUBA industry whose clients return again and again to see the same fish.
Commissioners recommended these proposed new points be incorporated and presented at the March 2022 meeting:
The draft rule presented at the FWC public meeting included:
Allow recreational harvest of 200 fish per year
An annual open harvest season of March 1 through May 31
Size Slot: 20 to 36 inches by hook-and-line only
A lottery application fee of $10 and, if awarded, a permit fee of $500
Hook-and-line as the only allowable gear
Harvest allowed in all Florida state waters (including Everglades National Park)
Except for Palm Beach County, south through the Atlantic coast of Monroe County,
Atlantic coast of the Keys and Dry Tortugas National Park
Reporting of catches by recreational fishermen is voluntary.
Additionally, FWC Commissioners asked to modify the rule as follows:
Increase the size of fish targeted because it was considered “too small” and “not enough for a trophy”
Increase total harvest, as 200 fish killed per year was considered “too low a catch”
Expand targeted area because the area targeted was considered” too small”
Reduce the cost of the tag, now at $500 per fish, to “democratize access to fishery”
This is a pivotal day in Florida’s history. Perhaps it will awaken the complacent, and those who did not believe that the FWC would make decisions devoid of scientific rationale. It is time to rethink the importance of protecting these and other species facing habitat loss and pressure from the increasing human population.