Goliath grouper talks begin, hogfish limits loom

New limits on taking hogfish in most Florida Keys waters go into effect Aug. 24.
New limits on taking hogfish in most Florida Keys waters go into effect Aug. 24.

Few fishing debates stir passions quite like the lumbering behemoth that is the Goliath grouper.

Florida state fishery managers head to the Florida Keys for series of three workshops this week, asking anglers and conservationists for views on whether it’s time to allow a limited harvest of the fish that can grow to 800 pounds and 8 feet long.

A total ban on catching Goliath grouper, then known as jewfish, was imposed 27 years ago when overfishing threatened the existence of the slow-growing, slow-reproducing species.

In recent years, some anglers and commercial fishers have contended that Goliath grouper numbers have rebounded to the point where the fish has become a nuisance or even a threat to food-fish populations. Others want to maintain the ban on harvesting one of the biggest fish in the ocean.

“Without additional [harvest] data, we can’t really tell what we’re doing in terms of science,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Robert Spottswood of Key West said in February, when the state agency leaders agreed to hold a series of 15 open workshops.

After a Monday session in Lake Worth, FWC staffers will host Keys information and comment sessions:

▪ 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel, 3841 North Roosevelt Blvd.

▪ 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Hyatt Place Marathon-Florida Keys (formerly Faro Blanco), 1996 Overseas Highway.

▪ 5 p.m. Thursday in Key Largo at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center, 102050 Overseas Highway.

Conservationists and many dive businesses say that like tarpon or billfish, a living Goliath grouper is far more valuable to the state tourism economy than a dead one.

The Diving Equipment and Marketing Association asked its members to submit comments on opening the door to a Goliath grouper harvest.

“Given the continued scientific uncertainty regarding the recovery of Goliath grouper populations, DEMA favors the continuation of the current moratorium on harvest of this species as we have since 2011,” the group said in a statement. “However, we do believe it is important to capture the opinions of all diving stakeholders on this issue.”

Felicia Coleman, director of Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory, said Friday, “There is no question that the Goliath grouper population is recovering, but it is not fully recovered.”

“There is a developing ecotourism industry where people want to do observational diving,” Coleman said. “Just seeing a huge fish like the Goliath grouper is really quite impressive.”

Coleman said researchers doubt that Goliath grouper can deplete a food-fish species. “A big fish like that doesn’t move around much so they don’t eat a lot,” she said. “Inside a [no-harvest] marine reserve, you’ll see Goliath grouper and other big fish getting along wonderfully.”

But the big grouper can find a fish struggling on an angler’s line an easy snack, she noted.

The FWC also will accept email comments at www.myfwc.com/SaltwaterComments. Workshops through Florida continue through October.

Hogfish limit

New state and federal limits on harvesting hogfish go into effect Aug. 24 due to an “overfished” stock.

Most waters around the Florida Keys fall into the newly defined Keys/East Coast hogfish population, which will limit recreational anglers to one hogfish per day, which must be at least 16 inches fork length. Commercial boats have a poundage trip limit but the higher size limit is the same 16 inches.

FWC board member Brian Yablonski said, “This was not an easy decision but will help balance the [hogfish] species’ needs while still offering opportunities for anglers.”

A state hogfish season will close Oct. 31 and remain closed until May 1. Federal waters have the same May-October open season but also include a January through April closure.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206