Why keep 'em if we can't eat 'em? Goliath grouper mercury can cause erectile dysfunction

Ed Killer
Treasure Coast Newspapers

Jupiter Wreck Trek denizens Wilbur, Betty, Shadow and all their goliath grouper friends living peacefully in Florida waters aren't out of danger quite yet.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will consider letting people harvest the apex predator for the first time since 1990 when staff presents a limited, highly regulated plan commissioners asked to review at a future meeting.

After three hours of discussion and 25 public comments Wednesday — the vast majority opposing the idea — the FWC kicked the can down the road, as they did in 2018. If the commission approves a harvest plan later this year or early next year, it could be a year or more before it's enacted.

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Suzanne Edwards, a diver who lives in Lake Worth, is a big fan of a Goliath grouper affectionately known as Wilbur which inhabits a reef off Boynton Beach. Edwards attended a public workshop Oct. 11 in Stuart.

Why would people want to keep goliath groupers?

For decades, the issue has been an emotional one that's polarized two communities: the conservationists, fishery scientists and dive charter operators who oppose harvest and the charter, recreational, commercial and spearfishing interests that support it.

With no known predators except humans, goliath groupers grow too big for even sharks to eat. Curious by nature, they swim toward divers, not away like other fish.

That behavior made them easy pickings. In the 1970s and '80s, divers easily harvested them using powerheads on spearguns, essentially underwater .357 magnums. Boaters mounted winches on gunwales to land the big fish. Fish houses paid as little as 40 cents per pound and a 300-pound fish could yield platter loads of fried grouper fingers.

Their numbers had depleted by the late '80s, so FWC banned their harvest in 1990 until a 50% spawning potential ratio could be restored. 

Myriad arguments for and against harvest could be summed up like this:

A Goliath grouper harvest trip from the late 1980s off Key West shows how easy it was to harvest many of the giant fish in one trip.

For harvest

  • The harvest ban achieved its goal and the population has rebounded
  • Overpopulation is now harming the reefs and ecosystem
  • They can be a nuisance, aggressive and take anglers' catches
  • Anglers want to harvest them, and access is the FWC's mission
  • Harvest should be allowed if science shows rebounded population 

Against harvest

  • Important part of the ecosystem, like manatees
  • Significant economic benefit through dive and snorkel tourism
  • Eating them could be harmful due to high mercury levels
  • They haven't rebounded throughout their historic range
  • Conservative management needed because they're vulnerable to overfishing.

Among the notable opponents who called into Wednesday's meeting was Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of legendary French undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, and founder of Ocean Futures Society.

"I am totally against this proposal. We need to protect goliath grouper forever in perpetuity, like we do with sea turtles, manatees, dolphins and whales," Cousteau said. "They should not be taken for personal pleasure or for food. They are loaded with mercury. Please, please protect this magnificent fish."

Grouper troopers: Some serious biomass of 250-pound Goliath groupers gather each October at the bow of the Esso Bonaire shipwreck offshore of the Martin-Palm Beach County line. These protected apex predators gather on area reefs each fall to spawn.

Recreational anglers and divers such as Torry Smith favored the harvest.

"Ten years ago, it was rare to see a goliath grouper around coral heads near the Lower Keys," Smith said. "But in the last 3-5 years, their numbers have exploded. They have really impacted the lobster and have taken over the reefs in the Keys."

Another supporter was Megan Emery, fisheries and conservation director for the Florida Skin Divers Association.

"They are a nuisance to divers. They are opportunistic and feed on speared fish," she said. "They pose a safety risk. Divers risk entanglement in spearfishing gear and the fish can keep freedivers from getting air." 

Eating goliath grouper causes erectile dysfunction?

Goliath grouper muscles are believed to have a high concentration of methylmercury, which poses a serious human health risk.

"Why kill them? You can’t eat them. The mercury can cause erectile dysfunction, so those who harvest them will just take a photo and let the carcass rot. Show leadership by rejecting harvest proposal," urged Sarah Frias-Torres, a marine researcher who has worked extensively on goliath groupers off the Treasure Coast and Palm Beaches.

Mercury can affect many other body systems, including renal, immune, digestive, cardiovascular, neurological and reproductive, according to a 2014 article entitled "Environmental Mercury and Its Toxic Effects" and published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health.

The Florida Department of Health advises people, especially pregnant women, not to eat fish high in mercury once a week. Consumption of 0.46 parts per million of mercury a week is unsafe. Over 75% of goliath groupers measuring 47-67 inches — the size FWC recommended harvesting in 2018 — would exceed that threshold, according to a presentation at Wednesday's meeting.

Two anglers enjoy a dip with a Goliath grouper they reeled up May 13, 2021 while fishing with Capt. Matt Budd and the Jupiter Fishing Academy of Jupiter. The fish was released.

Do FWC commissioners oppose or support goliath grouper harvest?

The FWC's core mission is to provide access to fisheries and hunting opportunities.

At least three commissioners seemed opposed to allowing harvest, however.

Commissioner Gary Nicklaus of North Palm Beach, son of legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, said a plan with too many limitations wouldn't be worth the effort.

"I don't think opening harvest for 100 groupers over four years to generate something like $30,000 is really giving anyone access. I think the economic benefit to the state of Florida is far stronger on the side of the recreational dive ecotour community," he said. "I don't know we need to vote on something a year from now. We could wait 3-5 years until we see the numbers improve." 

Chairman Rodney Barreto of Miami agreed with Nicklaus and Commissioner Michael Sole of Juno Beach said he may consider harvesting, but likely won't vote for it.

"I think we should consider making a smaller slot size to ... address mercury and ... address not taking Wilma or the other super producers," Sole said. "I’m probably going to vote no. I'm fearful we’re going to have the same rules as last time and 100 fish doesn’t open access and won't change fishermen's experience on the reef."

Commissioner Gary Lester of Oxford quoted a past president in what appeared to be support of harvesting.

"Ronald Reagan once said, 'The closest thing to eternal life on Earth is a government program.' This is the danger we have when we do bans. There is tendency that the regulation is going to live on forever. But we’re not in the never business," Lester said.

TCPalm outdoors columnist Ed Killer caught and released this juvenile Goliath grouper April 21, 2021 while fishing near mangroves in the Indian River Lagoon with Capt. Mark Dravo of Y-B Normal charters in Fort Pierce.

Deja vu? Here's what I think now

When the FWC staff presented a harvest plan in 2018, commissioners delayed any decision.

We can't continue to be stuck on this dime," then-Vice Chair Robert Spottswood of Key West said during the heated debate. "I don't want to keep kicking the can down the road, and have to come back five years from now" after the next stock assessment.

Here we are, three years later, not five, debating the same issue.

Based on the 2018 plan, FWC may allow the harvest of 100 fish a year and require a $300 tag. Demand likely would warrant a lottery system to assign tags to anglers or divers, similar to the state's alligator hunt. FWC could even prohibit harvest in areas where divers "know" goliath groupers like Wilbur, Betty and Shadow.

After giving this issue much thought over the years, I've changed my mind. I don't think we need to harvest them. I really don't see the point, especially if we can't eat them. 

Research shows they aren't gobbling up all the snapper and lobster on Florida reefs, as some people claim. Will they take your snook or snapper when it is hooked near a reef? Absolutely. But so will sharks and barracudas.

Frankly, I think the FWC should focus on the South Florida shark depredation firestorm.

I expect the goliath grouper "harvest or not" issue will eventually die a slow, prolonged death. But like the mishandled black bear hunt in 2015, it may never die completely or without controversy.

Ed Killer is TCPalm's outdoors writer. Receive Outdoors news weekly in your email inbox by clicking here. To interact with Ed, friend him on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him at ed.killer@tcpalm.com.