Scientific name: Epinephelus itajara
Size: Up to eight feet long, 800 pounds (state record: 680 pounds)
Life span: 30-50 years
Diet: Crustaceans and slow, bottom-dwelling fish
Habitat: Can be found in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Adults inhabit nearshore reefs and rock ledges; juveniles in mangrove and brackish water estuaries.
Of note: The species were commonly referred to as “Jewfish” until 2001, when the name was changed by the American Fisheries Society. Although the origins are debatable, it is believed that the original moniker dates back to the late 1600s when the large fish was a kosher favorite for Jewish settlers in Jamaica.
It is tough to spend a day on — or below — the water on the Gulf Coast without having an encounter with a goliath grouper, but that doesn’t mean anglers will be able to keep one anytime soon.
Recreational angler Timothy Nagy landed a monster last month while fishing from the Naples Pier. He estimated it to be around 600 pounds.
“The fight was like hooking up to a Volkswagen. It was like pulling in a boulder,” he said.
Stories of the colossal fish are commonplace in Southwest Florida, where a perfect combination of offshore habitat, multiple spawning sites and an expansive inshore estuary have made this area the epicenter of the species.
Bill D’Antuono, the president of the Naples Spearfishing League, recalled a recent encounter while diving on the wreck of the Baja California about 60 miles off the coast of Marco Island.
“I see the biggest bait ball I’ve ever seen. Getting closer, I make out an outline of the biggest goliath I’ve seen to this day, easily 700 pounds, sitting in the center,” he said. “Next thing I know I’m surrounded by four goliath — all over 500 pounds — waiting for me to shoot a fish.”
On the remains of the Santa Lucia barge about four miles west of Gordon Pass, a four-foot goliath is camped between two concrete pilings, appearing to yawn lazily as it watches divers remove debris from the surrounding reef. From both corners of its massive jaws hang several strands of leaders — souvenirs from all the fishermen floating above. The dangling fishing lines gave it the appearance of a villain in an old kung fu movie.
A niche sport has even emerged where the fish are brought up using hand lines in the same fashion as Ernest Hemingway’s Santiago of “Old Man and the Sea” did with marlin.
With encounters so common, many fishermen have started asking the question: When can I keep one?
BEHEMOTHS ON THE WAY BACK
Goliath grouper have been one of the biggest success stories of marine conservation after the species had been hunted to dangerously low levels in the 1980s.
“They’re everywhere,” said Capt. Mark Garcy, who operates fishing and dive charters out of Naples Marina & Excursions. “If you put a car battery on the bottom, there would be a goliath on it by the end of the day. It doesn’t matter how big of a structure there is, there is typically going to be several males hanging around with one large female.”
Because of their status as apex predators — even consuming small sharks — goliath grouper have few natural enemies, and show no trepidation when confronted by humans. This made them an easy target back in 80s for spearfishermen who could approach the fish without it feeling the need to swim away and employ a “bangstick” — fishing spears that have been modified with an exploding tip that could deliver a charge that is similar to a 12-gauge shotgun blast.
The fish also tend to remain in one place after establishing themselves on a structure, so once a fish had been located, heavy gear — including electric winches strong enough to pull entire trees or disabled cars — could be used to haul the goliath from its hiding places.
At the time, entire fish, which can grow over eight feet long and weigh over 800 pounds, could be sold on the wholesale market for 50 cents per pound or more, meaning an industrious captain could make several hundred dollars a day harvesting them.
The harvesting took a serious toll on the population. Offshore sites where the goliath would aggregate to spawn, mostly off the coast of Southwest Florida, that once held fish by the hundreds would only draw 10 to 12 each year.
The federal government declared goliath a protected species in 1990, and prohibited harvesting them in U.S. waters. In 1994, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the goliath as critically endangered, prompting other countries from Brazil to the Virgin Islands to follow suit in protecting the megafauna.
SOUTHWEST FLORIDA PLAYS BIG ROLE
This part of the Gulf of Mexico is an ideal habitat, offering plenty of nearshore reefs and structure for adults, and miles of mangrove estuaries for early development. This makes it a perfect place for the comeback,
“Habitat quality is a key factor for any fishery, and areas like Everglades National Park, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve represent some of the largest intact tracks of relatively pristine mangrove habitat in our hemisphere,” Collier Sea Grant Extension director Bryan Fleuch said.
Juveniles hang out in the estuaries for five to six years until they are roughly three feet in length. At that point, the fish move offshore, where they can take up residence on a specific site for years at a time.
Kevin Sweeney, owner of SCUBAdventures dive shop in Naples, has been diving these waters since the early 1970s. He claims that the population today is as strong as he has ever seen it.
Because the species has been protected from all harvest, a reliable stock assessment is still being undertaken. However, early research seems to support what anecdotal reports have indicated.
“Besides our region, where higher numbers have been seen for some time now, there are more reports of goliath being observed in other parts of the state and region where they were historically more abundant,” said Fleuch, who is spearheading the local Great Goliath Grouper Count, an ongoing research survey effort during the last four years which measures the population of the species on several key offshore sites.
Fleuch points out that there are still lots of gaps to fill in before the issues of changing the management practices on the species is expected to be brought before the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision in 2015.
“Information on their historical abundance is limited and not precise. Likewise, information on the perceived comprehensive increase in abundance is limited, and it is difficult for fisheries managers to truly understand the extent to which the species has recovered throughout its geographic range — not just in southwest Florida.”
TO HARVEST OR NOT TO HARVEST AGAIN
So, what does the future hold for these giant fish?
According to a study released last month by the University of Florida, which surveyed 3,842 stakeholders, that depends on what side of the fence you are on.
“In general, I think they are pretty neat to see,” Sweeney said. “If you are a commercial fisherman trying to bring your fish up to the boat, they’re not good. If you are a spearfisherman, and they are taking your fish from you, they’re not good.”
On average, commercial and recreational fishermen — including spearfishers — disagreed with the present closure, and mostly agreed with opening a strictly regulated fishery. The study found the opposite to be true for those who classified themselves as “sightseeing divers” or members of conservation organizations. Of those divers who do not spearfish, 87 percent responded that their encounters with goliath are positive, while 42 percent of commercial fishermen surveyed consider the goliath a nuisance species.
“There is always a plus and minus,” Garcy said. “We love to have them from the diving aspect, and fishing for the sport aspect of it. Everyone likes to see big fish. That’s one of our big draws down here.”
According to the study, 78 percent of all recreational anglers were interested in the harvesting of goliaths.
“Thinning them out a little bit wouldn’t hurt,” Sweeney said.
Locally, opinions varied about the best method to achieve a balance between conservation and harvest.
“Definitely (they should be opened to harvest) but with a limit not to kill them all again,” said Capt. Jon Brossard, who frequently comes in contact with goliaths while targeting intended sharks. “Maybe one per person, per year with a tag.”
The tag system is credited with effectively managing another of Florida’s largest fish species: the tarpon.
“When you have management on some things but not others, it doesn’t make much sense at all,” Garcy said. “They should have a lottery type of system and do selective harvesting. I’m not big into taking the largest fish. I think that slot limits are the best way to manage any species.”
All agreed that the largest of the species, which are also the most prolific spawners, should still be protected from harvest.
“The smaller ones are going to be more tender and better to eat anyway,” Garcy said.
Now the question for fisheries management officials becomes: What do you do after conservation efforts are a success?
It is an important question that could impact dozens of important species in the state for the future.