FWC allows killing of goliath grouper for first time in over 30 years
For the first time since 1990, recreational anglers fishing in some parts of Florida will be allowed to take home a goliath grouper for dinner.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted without dissent Wednesday to approve proposed new rules for a "highly regulated limited harvest" of the gentle giants. When final approval comes at its March 2022 meeting, harvest could begin as early as 2023.
The fish live in estuaries as juveniles, then move to reefs, rocky jetties and bridges in deep waters as adults, which can weigh 300-400 pounds. They have been protected in state and federal waters since 1990, when they were deemed to be overfished
FWC's new goliath grouper regulations
The FWC staff recommended these proposed new rules:
- The harvest of up to 200 goliath grouper per year, with harvest opportunities awarded via random-draw lottery with a maximum of one permit and tag per person per year
- A lottery application fee of $10 and, if awarded, a permit fee of $500
- A slot limit of 20-36 inches total length
- Hook-and-line as the only allowable gear
- An annual open harvest season of March 1 through May 31
- Harvest allowed in all state waters except those of Palm Beach County south through the Atlantic coast of Monroe County
- A requirement for participants to submit harvest and biological information.
Some of the seven-member governor-appointed commissioners expressed concerns Wednesday about issues that 20 stakeholders raised in public comments, so they will consider these changes to the proposed regulations at their March meeting:
- Adding Martin County waters to the no-harvest zone
- Reducing the license fee
- Increasing the minimum harvest size.
Critics oppose killing goliath grouper
Conservationists, researchers and owners of dive shops and dive charter businesses disagreed with the decision. Recreational anglers had mixed opinions, with some welcoming the open season and others saying the limited harvest wasn't enough.
"I was shocked to see FWC commissioners ignore science and approve the draft rule to start killing goliath grouper," marine researcher Sarah Frias-Torres wrote to TCPalm via Twitter.
Scientific evidence shows adult goliath grouper numbers are declining, said Frias-Torres, who has worked on projects examining goliath groupers during spawning off Palm Beach County. Reef surveys show it; the spawning aggregation sites this year had fewer breeders compared to 10 years ago, she said.
"And then, there's the complete collapse of the Indian River Lagoon, so no more nursery habitat there. And the ongoing and recent red tides killing fish," she said. "FWC should not be proposing any kill fishery. But here we are."
An angler who favored the decision was Darcie Arahill of Lantana, known by 377,000 YouTube subscribers and on social media as Darcizzle, a full-time professional female angler who said she was "super excited for a goliath grouper open season."
"It's amazing to see the FWC work to open up a fishery that has been closed for 30 years. It proves that we can improve and bring back threatened species," she wrote to TCPalm via Twitter. "Personally, what fisherman does not want to catch and eat a fish that has been off-limits for decades and that they've never caught before!
Catch-and-release tears up the fish
Walt Stearns, a lifelong diver and underwater photographer from Palm Beach County, called goliath grouper "natural capital." He said he is concerned about his observations of smaller numbers of goliath groupers returning to offshore spawning sites, as well as recreational fishing practices on spawning aggregations.
"They are tearing up the fish. I've seen fish with eyes that have been lost to barotrauma, some with half their jaw taken out, some have fishing rigs hanging out of their mouth. I feel a lot are dying from catch-and-release practices," Stearns told the commissioners Wednesday. "There are about five known spawning sites off Palm Beach and one off Martin County, and they are small areas. They should be left alone from bottom fishing activities during this (July through October) time period."
Stearns said he counted 150 fish this year, down from 270-280 in 2013 and 2014, the most in his experience.
Divers travel here from all over Florida, the U.S. and even other countries to see goliath grouper and spend money elsewhere in the state while they're here.
To protect the fish, Commissioner Gary Nicklaus of Palm Beach suggested those who oppose the limited harvest apply for permits, then don't use them.