The largest grouper in the Atlantic Ocean is so big that it can eat a four-foot-long shark in one gulp and makes noises so loud that nearby scuba divers feel an effect much like a sonic boom. These fish, named goliath groupers after the giant of Biblical legend, can reach more than eight feet long and weigh over 800 pounds. But their gargantuan size offers little protection against the proposed lifting of Florida’s fishing ban for this threatened species.
Until 2018, goliath groupers were classified as critically endangered throughout their range, in tropical and subtropical Atlantic waters, in large part because of overfishing. In Florida, where they’re mainly concentrated on reefs around the southern coast, fishing for the species hasn’t been allowed since 1990.
Nonetheless, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which regulates hunting and fishing in the state, announced in May that it’s considering lifting the ban. “Goliath groupers have continued to increase in abundance since the fishery was closed in 1990,” reads a statement the commission emailed to National Geographic. “For a variety of reasons, some fishermen want harvest to be allowed, including desires for reduced interactions with goliath while fishing, opportunities to harvest a very large fish, and belief that harvest access should not be restricted indefinitely.”
The decision to open the discussion, however, has sparked fierce debate. It’s hard to establish how many goliath groupers there are in Florida waters because fish are hard to count. Still, most scientists agree the species is recovering, but populations are not yet where they should be. Three years ago, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the scientific body that evaluates the global conservation status of species, improved the goliath grouper’s status from critically endangered to vulnerable.
“We should applaud our successes,” said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto in a May press release, in which he argued the ban has been in place long enough. “Just because we’ve been doing something for 30 years doesn’t mean we need to keep doing it the same way.” His point of view is supported by many fishermen, who claim goliath groupers are a scourge whose growing populations need to be knocked down so they stop picking off other sportfish.
But many marine scientists, including Christopher Malinowski, a conservation biologist who studied goliath groupers during his Ph.D. research at Florida State University, say their recovery has faced setbacks in recent years and that their numbers are still too low to justify lifting the ban.
“At this point, the data do not support opening even a limited fishery,” he says. “The decision by FWC to move forward with their plan to develop a limited harvest of goliath grouper is not based on the best-available science.”
Swimming with Goliath
Florida is the only place in the world where divers can reliably see the goliath groupers, and the opportunity to develop a scuba industry around it could be lucrative, opponents of the proposed fishery argue.
“The economic value to the state of Florida of an ecotourism diving industry focused on viewing goliath grouper far outweighs the value of a limited fishery,” says Felicia Coleman, the former director of Florida State University’s marine laboratory.
David Doubilet, a National Geographic Explorer and photographer, describes swimming with goliath groupers as “a highlight of my underwater life.”
“You don’t just see them; you hear them booming like percussion instruments,” he says. “When you see them, they resemble dirigibles lined up in the wind, except the wind is the water current. They’re large enough creatures to form their own bait ball, with cigar minnows surrounding them in huge schools so dense that you sometimes can’t even see the goliath inside.”
The American Sportfishing Association, a nonprofit trade group that has advocated for lifting the ban, did not respond to a request for comment. In a public statement at an FWC meeting in May, Kellie Ralston, one of the organization’s policy directors, said, “We support the exploration of a conservative harvest for goliath grouper if the commission feels it's supported by science.”
Christopher Koenig, a retired marine biologist at Florida State University and Coleman’s husband, says FWC ignored important data when it decided to start discussions about lifting the ban. “Data presented at the recent FWC meeting was simply wrong,” he says, citing two recent population surveys he says should have been included: Both found goliath groupers in Florida have declined by half since 2010—when their numbers peaked after the ban went into effect—resulting from severe cold weather in the 2009-2010 winter. “Passing over important surveys to conclude that the population is growing is tantamount to cherry-picking, selecting data that supports your position even if it’s not the truth.”
Red tides in recent years also have killed many goliath groupers, Coleman says, and the degradation of mangroves, where juveniles spend most of their time, has prevented new generations from surviving to adulthood, a six-year process.
Decision is months away
This isn’t the first time Florida regulators have discussed lifting protections for Goliath groupers. In 2017, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, tweeted a link to a news story headlined, “Florida weighs goliath grouper hunt” and commented that he “can tell you 1st hand that they are no longer endangered.” When asked what he meant, his office did not respond. At the time, the species was still classified globally as critically endangered.
A 2018 discussion about lifting the fishing ban ended after a three-hour public meeting held by FWC in which all but a handful of speakers expressed opposition. This time, however, FWC is moving forward and creating a detailed plan for further consideration.
In response, Coleman, Koenig, and Malinowksi wrote an open letter to FWC that was signed by nearly a hundred marine scientists and conservationists, including photographer Doubilet, from around the world, and they’ve gathered 3,000 signatures on their change.org petition.
There is no deadline for FWC to make a final decision, but it likely won’t be until at least October. If the commission votes in favor of allowing fishing, it will draft a rule laying out regulations such as how many fish could be caught, where, and with what equipment. The draft rule then would be subject to a months-long public review process. In the meantime, red tides in Florida this summer continue to kill goliath groupers.
David Shiffman, Ph.D., is a Washington, D.C.-based marine conservation biologist. Follow him on Twitter at @WhySharksMatter. The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded photographer and Explorer David Doubilet’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of ocean Explorers.