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Giant groupers gobble anglers' catch

But regulators won’t open a season anytime soon on the goliath, not legally caught since 1990.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published November 23, 2006


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[Special to the Times]

Like other top-of-the food-chain predators, goliath grouper once had few natural enemies.Then spear guns showed up.

Divers had easy pickings on wrecks and rock piles. All it took was a bullet shell screwed onto a spear. Goliath had no fear.

Just paddle close and let fly at their heads. The biggest challenge was hoisting 300- or 400-pound carcasses onto the boat.

Today the tables may have turned. After 16 years of federal protection, fishermen say, goliath grouper once again rule the reefs. Try to haul up a snapper or amberjack from your favorite hot spot and some goliath will snatch it away.

“They are like cockroaches,’’ said spear fisherman Dennis O’Hern. “They are everywhere.’’

“It’s almost impossible to fish anymore,’’ said Fred Lifton of the Marco Island Charter Captain’s Association. “You can’t get on a wreck without being inundated by them. You can’t get fish up, not grouper, snapper, permit, snook, cobia. They take everything.’’

In southern Montana, sheep ranchers complain of Yellowstone’s wolves. . In Palm Harbor, protected alligators occasionally dine on poodles.

So it is with goliath grouper, which can live 35 years and weigh as much as 800 pounds. Protection has gone too far, fishermen say.

This month  in Galveston, they pleaded with the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council to open some kind of hunt to cull out the stock. Maybe with a tag that allows people to catch one fish. Maybe with a brief season.

“I beg you, beg you, to do something,’’ Lifton told the council. “We cannot catch anything but goliath grouper. We fish them for fun … then let them go. If we want fish for dinner, we go to a restaurant.’’

Life cycle in slow lane

So far, regulators are responding cautiously. Goliath may be particularly susceptible to collapse. They tend to hang out in identifiable spots. They take five or six years to reach reproductive age and decades to hit their egg-laying peak.

Other species can recover within a few years if regulators guess wrong, but not these primal beasts.
Besides, scientists are flying blind. They typically monitor stocks with commercial and recreational catch data. Are fish getting harder to catch? Are big ones still biting, or just the little ones?

But with no legal catch since 1990, no one has hard information about what’s out there.

For all their size, goliath prefer shallow water, which is why old-timers pulled in monsters right off fishing piers. They called them Jewfish, a name that was officially changed in 2001.

Though goliath range all over Florida, they predominate from Tampa Bay to the Keys. Youngsters need mangroves and grass flats. The Everglades’ 10,000 Islands area is their primary nursery.

They prefer to eat crab, lobster, shrimp and other crustaceans, swallowing them whole with a powerful gulp.

Fin fish are also on the menu, at least when some angler has already disabled a fish by shooting or hooking it.

O’Hern said he once had six amberjack tied to back of his boat — about 240 pounds worth — and a goliath “came up an sucked them up like a vacuum cleaner.’’

Goliath show no interest in eating divers, although  a poacher recently drowned in the Keys after spearing a 40-incher.

The diver, who had wrapped his line around his wrist, had no knife to cut himself free when the fish wedged itself under a coral head.

In the 1980s, St. Petersburg diver Paul Renner and a few friends would head for Key West and “hit every wreck from here to Dry Tortugas,’’ he said.

“We would shoot 10,000 pounds of Jewfish,’’ using a special hoist to get them on board.

Goliath meat, which often holds parasites, sold for half the price of smaller grouper. But the fillets were popular in Cuban restaurants and good for fish fingers.

The management council banned goliath fishing in 1990 after a prolific commercial diver in the Keys testified that they were disappearing from his hot spots.

Besides pressure from fishermen, development and pollution were wiping out the mangroves that form goliath nurseries.

Martin Fisher, a commercial fisherman from St. Petersburg, saw the change firsthand. In the mid 1980s, Fisher was catching one or two goliaths a trip. By 1990, “I might have caught one or two a year.’’
Catch for research

Now they are coming back. For four years, Venice charter boat captain Eddie Toomer has filmed dozens hanging around wrecks from the Keys to Sarasota. “We are finding them on all the springs and ledges,” Toomer said. “On a big wreck, you might see 100.’’

Toomer disputes a common belief among fishermen that the goliath are gobbling healthy red grouper, gag grouper and snapper, the bedrock species of recreational and commercial bottom fishermen. In one video, Toomer said, schools of mangrove snapper swim right next to a goliath. “If goliath were its predator, nature would tell it to stay away.’’

Renner, however, disagrees. “I’ve seen them ruin a lot of my places’’ he said.  

Videos show goliath hiding in rocks, he said. “If a fish swims by, they just suck it in.’’

On charter trips, Renner sometimes links two stout poles to one line with a big hook and big bait so two clients can bend their backs and pull up a 300-pounder. Then they let it go.

In February, the National Marine Fisheries Service removed goliath from its “species of concern’’ list because the fish “is re-establishing itself throughout its historical range.’’

At their meeting last week, members of the management council expressed support for a tightly controlled harvest — maybe only 100 or 200 fish —  just for research purposes.

How old are the gulf’s goliath? What do they eat? How many eggs do they reproduce as they age?

“We are trying to figure out an appropriate level of take,’’ said Roy Crabtree, southeastern director of National Marine Fisheries Service.

But don’t look for a hunting season anytime soon, even one as controlled as Florida’s black bear hunt.

Studying such a hunt, writing the rules and putting it into place would take at least five years, estimated Florida fishing official Roy Williams.

“That’s absolutely ridiculous. By then we won’t have any fish to worry about,’’ said Lifton, the Marco charter boat captain. “Guys are ready to start killing. Just kill them instead of release them. If something isn’t done soon, they are going to take matters into their own hands.’’

Florida State University biologist Chris Koenig, who is counting and tagging goliath, cautions against loosening the rules too quickly.

“This is a wonderful success story. They are recovering,’’ Koenig said. “But they are nowhere near to coming all the way back.’’

Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at (727) 893-8442 or nohlgren@sptimes.com.

[Last modified November 23, 2006, 20:31:07]


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