The Invaluable Goliath Grouper – Our Coastal Southeast Florida Hope Spot Needs Your Help!
April 28, 2021
By: Angela Smith, Shark Team One
Goliath groupers are considered a keystone species since they are essential to a healthy reef and their presence and behaviors increase diversity within an ecosystem. The goliath grouper is also a vulnerable species and to give you an idea of how rare goliaths are, during a five-year Reef Visual Census (RVC) study from 2012 to 2016, assessments of reef fish abundance conducted by multiple regional academic institutions and government agencies found only 38 goliath groupers in the southeast Florida region (St. Lucie Inlet to Government Cut). Data from that project’s counterpart in the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas indicated that abundances were similar. Yet state policymakers are currently considering a tag lottery to kill 100 goliath groupers per year for a four-year period!
The main source for potential reversal of current goliath grouper protections comes from the pressure that fishers place on Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) due to the misconception that goliaths compete with them for food fish such as snapper. In fact, quite the opposite is true, more snappers are present on reefs where goliaths exist (Koenig & Coleman 2009). There is also increasing evidence that goliath groupers consume and control invasive lionfish on artificial structures in Florida. Lionfish biomass exhibited a 7-fold reduction in relation to the biomass of grouper along a chain of Bahamian reefs. According to the same study, a 50% reduction in lionfish biomass was achieved with a larger grouper population (Mumby et al. 2011), indicating that we need more grouper in order to stave off the devasting impacts to reef fish abundance caused by hungry lionfish.
If a harvest tag lottery should be enacted, each tag would cost fishers anywhere from $34 to $300 per fish killed and allow hook and line harvest. There’s no way to put a value on an irreplaceable vulnerable species, however numbers are used in conservation policy scenarios to prove that life is more valuable than death and groupers are no exception. In a 2016 study, divers surveyed said they would pay anywhere from $202 to $336 per dive trip to see an aggregation of goliath groupers (Shideler & Pierce 2016). With each goliath grouper living to 37 years and potentially even up to 50 years or more, rudimentary math tells us that goliaths are worth far more alive than dead!
Goliath groupers are already a catch-and-release species in Florida waters, so the current situation should be enough to create a world where everyone can get along, but the possibility of bagging a large trophy fish or having a freezer full of goliath meat has many fishers unable to consider the ramifications of removing a keystone, vulnerable species. Sadly, human activity has poisoned these invaluable fish with the most toxic of methylmercury. Studies have proven that goliaths contain so much mercury that one bite is above EPA standards for safe levels. It would be irresponsible on a public health level if FWC allowed a harvest. Yet others in favor of opening season on goliath groupers hold on to antiquated thinking that killing a fish is the only way to study it. This notion equals the Japanese whale harvest in hypocrisy since scientists have no need to kill wildlife.
You can help us save the goliath groupers by writing a public comment and submitting it to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) before May 7th! Remember to base your comments on facts and science. Emphasize what is important for the environment and our Florida reefs. Discuss the value of goliath groupers, think outside the box regarding solutions and look for common ground. Keep your comments short and constructive. Together we can create conservation action based on solid science to help save the invaluable and irreplaceable goliath grouper!
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Goliath Grouper Workshop Clicker Sessions and Online Survey – Summary of Responses”. February 27, 2018, https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/goliath
Koenig, C.C., Coleman, F.C. (2009). Population density, demographics, and predation effects of adult goliath grouper. MARFIN Project (NA05NMF4540045) NOAA/NMFS Final Report. 79.
Mumby, P. J., Harborne, A. R., & Brumbaugh, D. R. (2011). Grouper as a natural biocontrol of invasive lionfish. PloS one, 6(6), e21510. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0021510
Shideler, G. & Pierce, B. (2016). Recreational diver willingness to pay for goliath grouper encounters during the months of their spawning aggregation off eastern Florida, USA. Ocean & Coastal Management, Volume 129, Pages 36-43, ISSN 0964-5691, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2016.05.002
Thanks to Dr. Kirk Kilfoyle (Environmental Planning and Community Resilience Division, Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department, Broward County) for providing Reef Visual Census (RVC)/NCRMP project information; Shana Phelan (Pura Vida Divers) for (Shideler & Pierce 2016) reference; Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) for (Koenig & Coleman 2009) reference and John Anderson (Terramar Productions) for Goliath Grouper PSA.