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Trophy Hunting

Perhaps no species is as loved and as hated by fishermen as the controversial goliath grouper. Many resident and visiting anglers looking for a serious tug of war can’t wait to connect with their next goliath, while an equal number of anglers go to great measures in an attempt to avoid these indiscriminate eating machines. Why the dissension? It all boils down to conservation.

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Photo: Paul Dabill

Goliath grouper are truly formidable giants capable of eclipsing an astonishing 500 pounds in weight. The world record hook and line goliath captured off Fernandina Beach in 1961 tipped the scale to a whopping 681 pounds! Goliath grouper are the largest member of the sea bass family and have a vast range that includes all of Florida, The Bahamas and most of the Caribbean. There have even been surprise occurrences as far north as Maine and Massachusetts.

Goliath grouper are also equipped with sharp teeth that are adapted for snatching prey and preventing escape, although the majority of meals are simply eaten whole.

Considered poor table fare, the formerly named “Jewfish” were highly sought after for trophy hunters and commercial fishermen alike. Truthfully, most of the flesh was used as fertilizer or ended up as pet food. The goliath grouper’s inquisitive and fearless nature made it an extremely easy target, especially for spearfishermen who faced the monsters on their own turf. Goliath grouper also tend to spawn in large aggregations, returning like clockwork to the same locations year after year, making them particularly vulnerable to mass harvesting. Add in slow growth and a low reproductive rate and it is easy to see why these big-mouth behemoths were susceptible to overfishing. By the time a complete ban was placed on the species in 1990, the goliath grouper population was a mere fraction of what it once was.

Today, goliath grouper stocks are rebounding nicely—some believe too nicely—though the fish remains totally protected from harvest and is recognized as a Critically Endangered Species by the World Conservation Union. One has to wonder…has anyone from this organization fished a Gulf wreck lately? Along many structures you simply can’t drop a large bait to the bottom without it getting consumed by an opportunistic goliath.

Thriving populations of juvenile goliath grouper spend their adolescent years around South Florida roaming mangrove-lined shorelines and brackish estuaries in water barely waist deep, which is very unusual behavior among grouper. As they mature and backcountry food sources can no longer sustain their insatiable appetites, goliath grouper head offshore at about eight years of age where they take up permanent residence around caves, wrecks and reef ledges out to 50 meters. Divers report that these big brown fish characteristically display an open mouth and quivering body to unwelcomed intruders. Additional warning may be delivered in the form of the goliath grouper’s ability to produce a distinct rumbling sound generated by the muscular contraction of their swim bladder.

Regardless of size, hungry goliath grouper consume nearly anything and everything. Lobster, shrimp and crab are favored forage, but they’ve also been known to devour stingrays, catfish, octopus and even juvenile sea turtles. Prey is not chased down but ambushed, where unsuspecting meals meet their demise from a quick lunge and snap of the fish’s gaping maw. Goliath grouper are also equipped with sharp teeth that are adapted for snatching prey and preventing escape, although the majority of meals are simply eaten whole.

As far as recreational anglers are concerned, goliath grouper typically have a terrible reputation, most notably for stealing prized snapper, snook and even hooked cobia. I vividly recall one such experience in Florida Bay.

Leaving Marathon in our wake, we steamed nearly 50 miles to a little known pile of concrete rubble. Drifting live crabs across the debris field we proceeded to hook a dozen huge permit over the span of the tide. Even with our valiant efforts, ten of the twelve hooked permit were wittingly snatched by hungry goliaths. Without adequate tackle, tangling with the quarter-ton thieves was simply impossible.

Although the agony and ensuing pain from battling big fish provides anglers with memorable experiences, goliath grouper are different. Unlike large billfish, tuna and sharks, these broad bodied beasts aren’t known for screaming runs or majestic aerial displays. Heck, goliath grouper couldn’t propel their bulky bodies out of the water if they tried. Instead, backbreaking, tackle-busting battles are nothing more than an exhausting tug of war, with determined anglers doing all they can to prevent these modern day sea monsters from returning to their lairs. Depending on what gives first, encounters may last 30 seconds or 30 minutes, with the end result always the same—the goliath swimming away from the mere inconvenience relatively unscathed.

Juvenile goliath grouper may actually provide greater sport than their overgrown brethren. Fish in the 5- to 50-pound range are often coerced with live pilchard, mullet or shrimp presented along overgrown mangrove shorelines, at deep intersections where two cuts meet and along sharp ledges where flats drop off into water barely deep enough to cover their backs. It is in these bait rich backcountry venues where medium class spinning and casting outfits showcase the goliath’s best attributes—incredible tenacity and aggressive behavior.

As of this writing in late December, the future of goliath grouper appears to be relatively safe as there are no firm intentions to open up the fishery anytime soon, although updated stock assessments are in the works. I also recently learned that board members and staff from the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the South Atlantic Management Council and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are meeting on January 7, 2014 in Key Largo to consider reopening the goliath grouper fishery. We will certainly keep you informed of the outcome of this meeting in a future issue.

Scuba divers and representatives from Florida’s tourism industry believe these fish should continue to be fully protected and shun recreational anglers who think otherwise. Still, there are two sides to every coin. While we may not have the education of marine biologists, we clearly understand goliath grouper grow very slow and do not spawn for the first six or seven years of their life. With that being said, on the water observations lead us to believe the fishery has rebounded to a point where regulated harvest should be a serious consideration. The population needs some level of control and unless we are sadly mistaken and don’t know what in the world we are talking about, harvesting one fish per boat per day within a specific slot size outside of the spawning season doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Critics claim if you open up a limited recreational fishery a viable commercial fishery is not far behind and stocks may once again become depleted. This is certainly a valid concern if the fishery went unregulated, but no one is suggesting that and no one wants to see goliath grouper go the way of the buffalo.

In the meantime, encounters are increasing and what hurts more than anything is watching an incredible apex predator float away after valiantly fighting for its life. Sadly, that is exactly what happened to the last goliath I tangled with—a beautifully patterned fish estimated at 125 pounds that mistakenly inhaled my mutton snapper bait deep in the Gulf. Since I was fishing from a headboat, venting and reviving the fish was simply impossible.

You can choose to love or hate goliath grouper, but as of early January 2014 the species remains fully protected. For now you can join the ranks of bottom fishing enthusiasts who enjoy grueling battles, or you can target pelagic species higher in the water column in an attempt to avoid these beefy bottom dwellers altogether.

With a maximum weight in the range of 800 pounds, goliaths are the largest grouper species in the western Atlantic. Such a large fish makes for an impressive catch! Many anglers want proof in the way of a photograph to go along with their fish tale of the big one that didn’t get away. However, FWC rule states that, “No person shall harvest in or from state waters, nor possess while in or on the waters of the state, or land, any goliath grouper.”

Photo Savvy

Temporary possession of game fish for the purpose of measuring to determine compliance with the minimum size requirements shall not constitute harvesting. However, since the harvest of goliath grouper is strictly prohibited there’s no reason to measure these fish. Because of this, the release of the fish must be immediate, which means removing goliath grouper from the water for the purpose of taking a picture, or for any other reason, is strictly prohibited. The skeletal structure of large goliath grouper cannot adequately support their hefty weight out of the water. If a large goliath is brought aboard a vessel it is likely to sustain some form of internal injury. Thus, if the fish is harmed it could be considered “harvested” by definition. 

Removing juvenile goliath grouper from the water to dislodge hooks isn’t necessarily bad practice, but this process must be done with care using proper fish handling techniques.

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