Goliath Grouper: What still can be done to protect this iconic giant of Florida’s reefs

Goliath Grouper spawning aggregation
Goliath Grouper spawning aggregation off Jupiter, Florida.

Do you enjoy seeing Goliath Groupers on a dive? If so, read up.

The next FWC Commission meeting open to the public on the proposed limited harvest of Goliath grouper will be taking place this March 3rd, 2022, at the Tampa Convention Center (Ballroom D) on 3330 South Franklin Street, Tampa, Florida 33602. At some time after 8:30 a.m., the FWC staff present a final rule proposal to the Commissioners for a limited, highly regulated harvest of goliath grouper.

To see more on this, go to – https://myfwc.com/about/commission/commission-meetings/march-2022/

Following this presentation, there will be an hour for the public to speak before the Commissioners.

Here is what you should know

Decades of research have been conducted on Goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara), by various organizations, departments, and scientists, such as FSUCMLD, REEF, among a range of independent scientists. Based on a long series of data (using data up until 2014), the IUCN’s Groupers & Wrasses Specialist Group (GWSG) classed the species as globally threatened. Since this IUCN assessment ongoing field data collection clearly shows further declines showing that the species needs ongoing and effective conservation action for population recovery. The most recent statistics supporting the research was delivered by REEF in May 2021. You can download REEF’s graph here – https://github.com/dagreenberg/Florida-Goliath-Grouper-Trends/blob/main/figures/Goliath%20Grouper_Florida%20(All%20Regions)_state_space.pdf

Their data clearly detail a 50% decline in sightings over the past decade at 130 sites (a majority in the Florida Keys) and ongoing decline after the IUCN Red Listing assessment was completed. According to REEF Research Associate Dr. Dan Greenberg, East Coast sites are faring better but there are signs that populations there seems to have flatlined, for now. 

As for the FWC’s scientific justification to move away from a moratorium on Goliath grouper, given the species threatened status is highly questionable. Their latest is the planned opening of a limited harvest of Goliath grouper in state waters. This shift in directives in seemingly favor of politics over science could be seen as a means to quell the heated rhetoric from those within the fishing community.

Goliath Grouper
Recreational angler with a small (24-inch) juvenile grouper caught in the intercoastal region of the Florida Everglades National Park.

As it currently stands, the proposed harvest will be exclusively for fish between 24 and 36 inches (updated January 2022) in length, that can only be taken by hook-and-line tackle. Spearfishing is clearly off the table. The size of this harvest is limited to no more than 200 fish per year between March 1st and May 31st, starting in 2023.

To see the FWC Goliath Grouper – PROPOSED DRAFT RULE LANGUAGE (Version 2) dated October 6, 2021 in its entirety go to – www.myfwc.com/media/27534/6-goliathgrouper.pdf

Additional links include:

FWC approves a draft proposal for limited, highly regulated harvest of goliath grouperwww.myfwc.com/news/all-news/goliath-1021/

FWC Summary Memowww.myfwc.com/media/27535/6-sm-goliathgrouper.pdf

FWC Goliath Grouper Draft Rule Presentation from October 6th, 2021www.myfwc.com/media/27533/6-presentation-goliathgrouper.pdf

What is even harder to argue against, as anyone can attest to for proper fishery management, aggregating fish should be protected from all fishing activity to avoid disruption thereby allowing the full reproductive potential of that species as they gather to spawn.

Further Need To Protect A One-of-a-Kind Underwater Experience 

To be noted is that in the first draft rule proposed by the FWC, all of Palm Beach, Broward and Dade Counties on Florida’s Southeast coast and on down through Monroe County (the Florida Keys) on the oceanside would be prohibited to the limited harvest, when it opens. Following the last meeting hosted by the FWC in October 2021, the FWC is strongly considering adding all of Martin County (to the north of Palm Beach County) to the list.

So, this begs the question why are four South Florida counties along with the entire oceanside tract of the Florida Keys to be excluded from the rest of the state?

Palm Beach County is the only location on Florida’s East Coast where Goliath grouper gather to spawn during the months of August and September. The actual number of sites where the fish congregate each year for this two-month long ritual is comprised of four artificial reef sites and one natural reef location in Palm Beach County. The only other fully validated site is a natural reef formation known as Gary’s Grey in the southern boundary of Martin County.

Goliath Grouper

Goliath Grouper

For dive charter operators all these sites are located less than five miles from shore, and three are well within State waters that extend three miles from shore on Florida’s East Coast. The only other option to see this phenomenon begins 30 miles offshore of Florida’s Southwestern coast.

In addition to the cost of covering a distance this far offshore, there is the risk that such an endeavor could be mired by rough seas and/or poor underwater visibly, factors that prevent this region from ever becoming an equally viable alternative to Palm Beach County in terms of tourism. From there, nowhere else on the planet offers such a unique underwater experience. Bottom line, a live Goliath grouper has far more socioeconomic and monetary value than a dead one. 

Natural Capital

How much does a live Goliath grouper contribute in terms of dollars to South Florida tourism? Numerous studies have quantified the value of dive tourism, and more specifically the role Goliath groupers play in this market.

In 2016-2017, NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program funded two studies to assess the economic impacts to county and state-level Florida economies generated from recreational fishing trips and scuba diving and snorkeling trips on Southeast Florida’s reefs. The data from NOAA’s Economic Impact Analysis of expenditures on reef-related diving and snorkeling in Southeast Florida indicated that these activities supported some 8,668 jobs and generated about $902 million in total economic output over the course of a year.

While most would expect that the Florida Keys would come in number one in revenue generated from dive tourism, the study showed that Palm Beach County was the top revenue generator, bringing in about $202 million annually and supporting over 2,015 jobs. By contrast, Monroe County came in second with $149 million, supporting 1,756 jobs per year.

Read the report here – www.coris.noaa.gov/activities/florida_economics/welcome.html

Goliath Grouper
Every year between mid-July an mid-October, Goliath groupers put on the big show for scuba divers diving the Palm Beach County coast to see these huge groupers gather in large numbers for the purpose spawning.

The reason so many divers choose Palm Beach County for scuba diving is for the opportunity to see and get up close to some of the ocean’s larger forms of marine life. While sea turtles and sharks make for memorable encounters, it’s Palm Beach County’s Goliath groupers that pretty much top everybody’s list. Nowhere else is this more evident than during their spawning season (mid-July into early October) when the fish aggregate in large numbers on a handful of specific sites between the southern end of Martin County and lower Palm Beach County with Boynton Beach taking up the most southern point in all Southeast Florida.

The attraction is further supported by an independent Ocean & Coastal Management survey which found that Florida recreational dive charter customers have considerable consumer surplus intended for having encounters with Goliath groupers off eastern Florida. The survey also revealed that this is especially true of divers from out of state, as well as from other countries wanting to visit these fish during their spawning aggregation. Additionally, a reduction in or elimination of the Goliath grouper spawning aggregation sites would result in loss of this natural capital to Florida’s tourism industry.

To view this independent survey can be found here: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0964569116300862

Where Should Attention for Continued Protection be Applied?

Although the months of March through May set aside for the limited harvest would not overlap with the Goliath grouper spawning season it does not address a growing problem for the fish off of the Palm Beach County Coast.

The same sites where divers go to see these fish aggregate each year have also attracted the attention of hook and line fishermen who are targeting the big fish for entertainment. The gear for this practice is largely comprised of offshore fishing tackle in the 50 to 130-lb rod & reel class. This type of gear is what is used for big game fishing from a fighting chair or on standup rod & reel systems. In very few instances, anglers/charter captains might incorporate electric reels in place of big game 2 speed lever drag reels.

Goliath Grouper
Left: A recreational fisherman fighting a large fish on a big game rod with a 80-lb. 2 speed lever drag reel. Right: Image of a large grouper undergoing explosive decompression from being winched up quickly from depth.

Although this activity is performed by both private recreational and professional charter fishing boats as “catch and release” the endeavor has a detrimental effect on the Goliath grouper. The most egregious of these barotrauma-related injuries is gas expansion in the swim bladder and eyes when the fish is reeled up from depths greater than 60 feet. If the fish is not properly and quickly vented, it has little chance in making back to the bottom and instead is often left to float away and die. 

Goliath Grouper
Goliath groupers with barotrauma-related injuries to their eyes as a result of gas expansion in their swim bladder and eyes when the fish is reeled up from depths greater than 60 feet.

The luckier fish (if it can be called “luck”) that do make it back down are left with reminders of the ordeal such as torn up mouths and/or gills. Divers are also seeing an increasing number of Goliaths with large fishhooks embedded in their mouth often still trailing heavy monofilament and wire leaders up to a couple yards in length, or with damaged or missing eyes due to barotrauma induced injuries.

Setting Gear Restrictions is Not the Answer

It has been proposed by some FWC staff to perhaps prohibit the use of handlines to alleviate future injuries to the Goliath grouper during their spawning aggregation period. The notion of a gear restriction of this measure is total nonsense.

grouper grouper
Bottom left corner: A large heavy duty 4 or 5/0 circle hook fitted with a wire rope leader measuring 3 feet long followed by a 300-lb test monofilament leader of undetermined length was removed from a Goliath grouper on the MG-111 wreck back in September 2021 during last year’s spawning aggregation. Upper left clockwise to the bottom right: Goliath groupers left with reminders of their encounter with fishing tackle.

Nowhere would a charter guide/captain of sound mind ever conceive of having a client use a handline to fight a big fish like a large shark, tuna, marlin, swordfish or yes, a Goliath grouper. The risk of losing a finger or two, or even a hand is too great!

Furthermore, banning the use of specific hook and/or leader types when targeting Goliath grouper for catch and release would be impossible to enforce.

The Downward Spiral

Goliath Grouper

Targeting the fish during their aggregation period is also a contributing factor to an ongoing decline in the adult population, which has been noted on all five spawning aggregation sites in Palm Beach County over the last 6 years. Using 2013 and 2014 spawning seasons as a baseline, the drop in fish was undeniably significant; back then peak overall attendance averaged between 275 and 285 fish.

The Jupiter area has historically seen the lion’s share of Goliaths. August and September 2021 revealed a total of 90 and 100 fish collectively between the sites Jupiter Wreck Trek (Zion Train/Bonaire), MG-111/Warrior Reef artificial reef complex and Hole-in-the-Wall. Pre 2018, that number would have been doubled.

In the West Palm Beach/Singer Island area, just 10 to 12 fish total were observed between the Ana Cecilia/Mizpah wrecks, Danny and Spud Barge wrecks. For dive charters in that area, the 2021 season was a washout compared to previous seasons when divers regularly witnessed 40–45 fish at any given time.

In the Boynton Beach area, witnesses note between August 1st and September 27th, 2021, the Castor wreck received approximately 30–35 fish, a decline of more than 40 percent. All total, approximately 150 fish were witnessed at best between all five Palm Beach County sites, a number that is more comparable to what was observed back in 2006.

In addition to the decline dive operators are seeing on the spawning sites, there has also been a falloff in the number of resident fish over a large portion of Palm Beach coast reefs. Most notable is a half mile long reef tract called Tunnels off Jupiter Island where a longtime resident population of Goliaths went from around 18-19 fish to 3 individuals by late spring of 2021.

Note: The information above is based on yearly observations made by dive charter operators and members of the Palm Beach County Diving Association (PBCDA) who have been running charters to these spawning aggregations sites since 2006.

Best Answer: Close Aggregation Sites off to All Fishing During Spawning Season

Banning handlines is not the answer. Nor is implementing any kind of recreational gear restrictions, as law enforcement would find it near impossible to regulate. But closing the areas off to all fishing activity between mid-July to mid-October would be the most credible measure.

Bottom Line: To properly address this option would mean making all the spawning aggregation sites off limits to bottom fish activity during this timeframe. Unfortunately, only three of the sites reside in State waters–the MG-111/Warrior Reef artificial reef complex in Jupiter, Ana Cecilia/Mizpah wrecks as the primary in West Palm Beach and the Castor wreck off Boynton Beach. Adding the Zion Train /Bonaire artificial reefs sites would also be highly advantageous but would require NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to step in as they are in Federal waters.

Can the FWC implement a closure to all fishing on the three aforementioned Goliath spawning aggregation sites in state waters? Most certainly they can!

Exhibit A: FWC’s Closure of Western Dry Rocks to All Fishing

Western Dry Rocks
Closed off area of Western Dry Rocks

Recently the FWC implemented an annual one-square-mile fishing closure near the Western Dry Rocks reef system 10 miles southwest of Key West.

Spanning from April 1st to the end of July, the purpose of the closure to all fishing activity is due to the area’s importance as a key spawning aggregation site for multitude of species.

In doing so, data supports that this type of closure would allow those species to go unmolested thereby maximizing fisheries for permit, mutton snapper, yellowtail snapper, and gray snapper in the future.

For more info on FWC’s closure of Western Dry Rocks, go to – https://myfwc.com/news/all-news/wdr-comm-221/


What Can Be Implemented and Where

Goliath Grouper
Goliath Grouper spawning aggregation sites off Florida’s Palm Beach County Coast.

In comparison, each of the 3 sites in state waters off Palm Beach County would need an area covering a radius of 1000 feet / .1127 square miles, which are all in state waters. The three sites are the MG-111/Warriors Reef in Jupiter, the M/V Ana Cecilia/Mizpah Wrecks (aka Corridor) off West Palm Beach, and the Castor wreck off Boynton Beach. The combined area would encompass a total area of .338 square miles, roughly a third of what was put aside at Western Dry Rocks. Hence it is most certainly within the power of the FWC to consider and implement closure of the aggregation sites during spawning season.

The Right Thing To Do

In the scheme of things, considering the Palm Beach County Coast spans approx. 47 miles in breadth, a closure during spawning season would not be asking a lot, as it doesn’t take that much away from the recreational fishing community (private and charter alike) when they still have the rest of the region to fish.

The FWC also clearly understands that Goliath grouper are easily open targets to fishing activity at places where they aggregate to spawn, making them a highly vulnerable species as detailed two minutes into the FWC recent public webinar presentation of January 2022.

FWC’s webinar presentation is available for viewing on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EdAP8ELLZk

To close the aggregation sites to all fishing when Goliath grouper are here to spawn is the right thing to do. Not only for the fish to continue its highly important role for reproduction, but also for the economic benefits they hold for Florida tourism–bringing in local, national, and international visitors to see them.

Furthermore, it should be understood, the recreational diving community are legitimate stakeholders in this too.

Who’s On Board with This

Below is a list of Research Scientist & Marine Life Conservation Representatives along with the Recreational Diving Community & Industry Representatives agree and endorse the call for greater action in protecting goliath groupers during their spawning season in Palm Beach County waters:

Felicia Coleman Ph.D. (IUCN Groupers & Wrasses Specialist Group (GWSG)

Chris Koenig, Ph.D. (retired) Headed the Reef Fish Ecology Group for Florida State University Coastal & Marine Laboratory Dept. (FSUCLMD) performing the largest scale research on Goliath Groupers in Florida since 1990 – https://marinelab.fsu.edu

Christopher Malinowski, Ph.D. – Director of Research & Conservation, Ocean First Institutehttps://www.oceanfirstinstitute.org is a member of the IUCN Groupers & Wrasses Specialist Group (GWSG), also conducted Mercury Research on Goliath Grouper, studies on Diet & Trophic Ecology, and Spawning Aggregation Behavior for FSU

Dan Greenberg, Ph.D. – Scripps Institution of Oceanographyhttps://scripps.ucsd.edu, also a REEF Research Associate – https://www.reef.org

Yvonne Sadovy, Ph.D. & Dr. Matthew Craig – Co-Chairs: IUCN SSC Groupers & Wrasses Specialist Group (GWSG)

IUCN – International Union for Conservation of Naturehttps://www.iucn.org/theme/species

IUCN GWSG https://www.iucn.org/ssc-groups/fishes/groupers-wrasses

Martin Russell, Chair/CEO of Science & Conservation of Fish Aggregations (SCRFA)https://www.scrfa.org/

Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation https://ghof.org/

Palm Beach County Diving Association (PBCDA)http://divepbc.com

Tom Ingram, President & CEO – Diving Equipment & Marketing Association (DEMA)https://www.dema.org

Goliath Grouper

To download a pdf copy of this article, click on the image above.