Florida Ban on Fishing Goliath Grouper Remains Intact

Although the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) decided to uphold a ban on fishing goliath grouper, the fight to protect these fish is not over.

At the April 26th meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the commission decided to uphold the ban on fishing goliath grouper in state waters. The discussions on the meeting’s second day focused on future management of goliath grouper in state waters. The intent was to determine whether or not Florida would allow a limited harvest of 100 fish per year over a four-year term.

Local divers and conservations voice support for ban

As the meeting was open to the public, many from the local dive community turned out to support the continued ban. Opposition to fishing was fiercely delivered by a large group, perhaps the largest turnout since this battle began back in 2006. It was standing room only as many Florida divers, including young divers and marine enthusiasts, went to the podium to express their concerns about saving the goliath grouper and continuing the moratorium.

DEMA president Tom Ingram and CEO and Florida legislative advocate Bob Harris attended in support of the diving community. Both presented to the commissioners the importance of continuing the moratorium and protecting these endangered fish. Speakers also included Palm Beach County Dive Association members Gerry Carroll, owner Jupiter Dive Center in Jupiter; Shana Phelan, owner of Pura Vida Divers in West Palm Beach; Jim Abernethy, owner of Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures in West Palm Beach; and Captain Adam Birdwell, owner of Starfish Scuba in Boynton Beach.

Florida dive community speaks out

All are highly regarded, long-standing members of the Florida dive community. They and other operators spoke of world-class dive encounters with the beloved goliaths. They spoke of the economic importance and impact the fish have on tourism, indicating that 25 percent of their revenue comes from divers who visit from around the world specifically to see and dive with these fish.

Other significant members of the dive community, as well as representatives from REEF and Mission Blue also attended. REEF representatives explained that the IUCN lists the goliath grouper as critically endangered throughout the rest of its range outside of Florida.

Unsafe for human consumption

Even if the fishing moratorium ended, goliath groupers are unsafe for human consumption. Several marine-fishery research biologists who have been studying goliath grouper since 1990 when the fishing moratorium began were at the meeting as well. They spoke of the mercury levels in the animal’s tissues.

Dr. Chris Koenig of Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory and Chris Malinowski, a PhD candidate, have published key research on the presence of mercury in the goliath grouper.

Malinowski explained that extremely high mercury levels make goliath grouper unsafe to eat. He added that the current population in Florida would be at severe risk if the FWC allowed harvest at this time. Koenig, who has led research studies on the goliath grouper for NOAA since 1990 provided natural history information and explained the risks these fish face if they are subjected to any harvesting, even of a limited nature.

By the end of the day, FWC posted a press release as follows:

“After listening to public comments and discussing the current and future management of goliath grouper in Florida at the April meeting in Fort Lauderdale, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) directed staff to continue current goliath grouper research and management and develop a road map to direct future conservation efforts. They did not pursue a limited harvest.”

The fight is not over

While this is a win, we should consider it marginal. The FWC Commissioners did not make a formal vote to follow the first recommendations of the FWRI (the fisheries management staff of the FWC) to continue further studies of the fish for the next three to five years. What’s to come is anyone’s guess: this argument may reopen as early as this December.

By guest author Walt Stearns

For more information contact author Walt Stearns.