Last month, we discussed the biology of the goliath grouper, a fish still often called by its old name of jewfish. The fish is intriguing, if for no other reason than for its size.
It is known to grow to 800 pounds, although the IGFA world record is a 680-pound fish taken off Fernandina Beach, Fla., in 1961.
Dredging fish this big out of the reefs, wrecks and rigs that they love to inhabit is no easy task with a hand-held, cranked rod and reel.
Although it is now believed that the primary part of the fish’s range is near southern Florida, Louisiana’s offshore waters once held a large fringe population of the big fish, found most often under offshore oil and gas platforms. In the 1950s, when pioneer scuba-equipped fishermen began diving on the rigs off the Louisiana coast, big goliath groupers were common.
The late Art Cormier of Westwego, one of those early divers described what he saw.
“When I first began diving in 1953, jewfish looked like herds of cows under the rigs,” he said. “It was easy for divers to take two or three of them over 300 pounds each per boat, if we wanted to shoot them. Occasionally, we would take five or six a trip.”
Cormier noted that smaller fish, as well as big fish, were there — fish as small as 50 or 60 pounds.
By the late 1980s, the numbers of these fish had dramatically declined, not just off Louisiana but in the entire Gulf of Mexico. Just as alarming as the decline in numbers of fish was the disappearance of many of their spawning aggregations.
This species, like many other groupers, will travel long distances to form spawning groups called aggregations during July through September. Spawning aggregations are formed each year in the very same places as in previous years.
Recreational and commercial harvest of the fish was halted in U.S. Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic in 1990, followed by U.S. portions of the Caribbean in 1993.
Interestingly, this action was triggered by concerns from commercial fishermen, the very group least likely to share in the harvest when (or if) harvest by fishermen is allowed again.
Before 1990, jewfish, as they were known then, were harvested both recreationally and commercially, although in the Gulf recreational take was substantially larger than the commercial harvest.
The state of Florida accounted for 99 percent of the total Gulf harvest between 1979 and 1990.
Most of the commercial harvest was made with electric and hydraulic reels, and spear guns. The percentage taken by spear gun increased substantially after 1984.
The recreational fishery was made primarily with spear guns because of the difficulty of landing these large fish with typical rods and reels.
In the 1960s, recreational harvest of offshore goliath grouper in the Gulf of Mexico was limited, except in Louisiana where the presence of oil and gas platforms made the fish easy to locate.
As the use of LORAN navigational systems spread to recreational boats and LORAN numbers for shipwrecks and reefs were published in books and magazines, offshore fishing pressure on the species increased.
Large goliath groupers are easily approached by divers, making them susceptible to spear fishing. Spawning aggregations also became targets, both because the fish are highly concentrated and because they are even less cautious than at other times.
Commercial fishing pressure also increased. At one time, few commercial fishermen directed much effort at catching goliath groupers because they brought a lower price than snappers or other groupers. However, as demand increased, so did prices — from an average of 39 cents per pound in 1979 to 74 cents in 1987. Commercial landings increased as the price per pound rose.
At the time that the goliath grouper fishing moratorium was put in place, most people assumed it would take at least several decades for their populations to recover. Yet by the July 2002 Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council meeting, council members were looking at videos of concentrations of 300- to 500-pound goliath groupers on artificial reefs in 40 to 150 feet of water.
It was reported that every wreck had a goliath grouper on it.
National Marine Fisheries Service biologists responded that goliath grouper numbers had indeed increased, but not to pre-1983 levels.
The fishery remained closed.
In the intervening years, recreational and commercial fishermen began reporting more and more incidences of goliath groupers eating fish struggling on the ends of their fishing lines and spears. Fishing gear lost or damaged by the big fish was also increasingly reported.
Fishermen began to fret that goliath groupers were reducing populations of other harvestable fish, as well as spiny lobsters.
In 2012, the Gulf and South Atlantic fishery management councils joined to consider how to move the goliath grouper fishery beyond its moratorium.
But something else happened between 2002 and 2012 — a new “user group” appeared.
The needs of commercial and recreational (including charter) fishermen are easy to discern. They want to harvest fish.
The environmental community, increasingly eager to be recognized as a fisheries stakeholder, has never been a friend of anyone who wants to kill anything, and are most content with the least harvest possible.
The new user group is the “dive-tourist industry.” For them, the presence of large numbers of large fish to watch and photograph in relatively shallow waters is important. Goliath groupers filled that bill perfectly.
The group has captured the ears of some fisheries biologists. The following statement appeared in a recent Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council SEDAR (Southeast Data, Assessment and Review) report: “There may be greater long-term economic benefit to development of sustainable non-consumptive eco-tourism venues than would be possible from a consumptive fishery.”
Simply put: The fish might be worth more to look at than to catch.
In 2013, the University of Florida sponsored an extensive stakeholder survey, and held a stakeholder workshop to determine the views of the groups with an interest in the recovery of goliath groupers and their future after recovery. Not surprisingly, their responses were in line with their own self-interests.
Sixty-one percent of commercial hook-and-line fishermen and 57 percent of commercial spear fishermen viewed goliath groupers as a nuisance species. Only 14 percent of recreational hook-and-line fishermen and 37 percent of recreational spear fishermen held the same view.
On the extreme opposite end, only 9 percent of sightseeing divers called them a nuisance species and 87 percent said that encountering them on a dive was desirable.
Fifty-nine percent of commercial hook-and-line fishermen and 68 percent of commercial spear fishermen viewed the fish as having a negative impact on biodiversity. The numbers were 19 percent for recreational hook-and-liners and 51 for recreational spear fishermen.
As one could expect, only 13 percent of sightseeing divers felt that goliath groupers had a negative impact on biodiversity.
Asked if they were interested in harvesting the species, the yes answers were as follows:
Commercial hook-and-liners — 82 percent
Commercial spear fishermen — 80 percent
Recreational hook-and-liners — 72 percent
Recreational spear fishermen — 81 percent
This question was not asked of sightseeing divers.
Fishing charter and dive charter businesses were asked their views. Fifty-one percent of fishing charters felt that goliath groupers had a negative impact on biodiversity, versus only 10 percent of dive charters.
Only 19 percent of fishing charters responded that goliath groupers had a positive impact on their business, while 75 percent of dive charters did.
When asked what they thought the impact of allowing harvest of the fish would be, 56 percent of fishing charters said positive and 82 percent of dive charters said negative.
When the idea of a tightly regulated harvest of the species was proposed, it was supported by both commercial and recreational fishermen, and rejected by sightseeing divers, dive charters and environmental organizations.
Meanwhile fisheries biologists are sitting on the fence. A problem they cite is that they have little current data because harvest isn’t allowed. But without that data, they aren’t comfortable allowing harvest.
Fishermen are finding out that it is a lot easier to clamp down on a fishery than it is to loosen regulations on it.