Asked about allowing a limited harvest of Goliath grouper, Florida Keys people gave state fishery managers a split decision.
About 65 people in total attended one of three Goliath grouper workshops hosted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission this week in Key West, Marathon and Key Largo.
In sum, 30 people at the Middle and Lower Keys sessions Tuesday and Wednesday endorsed a proposal to let fishers with a highly limited permit — perhaps only 100 permits would be offered, with numerous restrictions — to take a Goliath grouper by hook and line or spearing.
In Key Largo, 21 of 28 people attending the Thursday session turned thumbs down on any Goliath grouper harvest. There were six votes against any harvest in Key West and Marathon combined.
Goliath grouper, formerly known as jewfish, can grow to 800 pounds. But biologists still do not know how long a Goliath can live.
“You never saw a Goliath grouper in the 1980s because they’d all been killed off,” Key Largo dive operator Spencer Slate said. “Now it’s still a huge deal to see one of these big fish.”
FWC staffers are staging 15 Goliath grouper workshops throughout the state, running though October. Results of an electronically compiled survey at the sessions, along with written comments submitted online, will be presented to FWC commissioners at their December meeting.
“There are still a number of unknowns about Goliath grouper,” said FWC Marine Fisheries Director Jessica McCawley. “We are seeing increases” in numbers of Goliath grouper in some areas, McCawley said Thursday.
“People have approached [FWC commissioners] for a number of years expressing their belief that the species should be opened back up to harvest,” McCawley said. “Some people have been talking about the fact that Goliath grouper are a nuisance because they aggregate in areas where people like to fish.”
Southwest Florida anglers have been highly vocal about Goliath grouper harming sport fishing.
After a workshop presentation on the Goliath grouper history and scientific uncertainties, FWC staff distributed “clickers” resembling TV remotes so audience members could respond to 34 multiple-choice opinion questions.
“We’d say we are responding to our stakeholders and trying to determine what is the best path forward,” McCawley said.
As proposed, a limited Florida harvest of about 100 would all researchers to examine the landed fish for sampling and tests. The harvest would be restricted to state water since federal fishery management councils have rejected any change to the current 27-year closure on Goliath grouper until more is known about the state of the species.
Key Largo divers voiced concern that any limited harvest could have an excessive effect on the Keys, since people know Goliath grouper like hanging out on artificial reefs like shipwrecks.
“The Goliath grouper has not fully recovered although there are isolated pockets of recovery,” Lad Akins of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation said.
“We’ve already lost most of our sharks and barracuda off the wrecks,” diver Carlos Estape said. “The Goliath grouper are the only big fish left for us to show people.”
McCawley noted that the big grouper are a big draw for the state diving industry.
Other proposals would put Goliath grouper spawning sites off-limits to fishing, and probably include a slot size to protect the largest breeding fish.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206