For the first time in 3 decades, Florida is planning to allow recreational fishing of one of the world’s largest and most embattled gamefish. But many fisheries researchers object to the plan, arguing that state officials have offered no scientific basis for allowing anglers to legally kill the Atlantic goliath grouper, which has seen its populations battered by decades of overfishing and habitat destruction.
“This decision is being made pretty arbitrarily without an understanding of how this species is doing,” says biologist Chris Malinowski, a member of a grouper specialist committee at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which has classified the Atlantic goliath grouper as a vulnerable species. “There’s a huge uncertainty around the population status and recovery of this species. … There’s a large chance that this will impact the overall recovery status in all of Florida.”
The Atlantic goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara) has long been a favorite of trophy anglers, seafood lovers, and scuba divers. The speckled fish, which lives in shallow warm waters on both sides of the central Atlantic Ocean, can reach up to 2 meters long and 450 kilograms. It is the largest member of the grouper family and can live up to 37 years.
In 1990, dramatic population declines prompted Florida to ban commercial and recreational fishing for the grouper in state waters, which extend 4.8 kilometers offshore in the Atlantic Ocean and 14.4 kilometers into the Gulf of Mexico. Catches are also barred in federal waters, which extend 322 kilometers offshore.
Last week, however, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recommended that, beginning in 2023, anglers be allowed to catch and kill up to 200 juvenile groupers annually in most of the state’s waters. In May, more than 90 fisheries scientists in the United States and other countries had endorsed a letter urging the commission to keep the fishing ban in place.
The scientists fear legal fishing will set back efforts restore Florida’s grouper population, and they worry the commission will further increase the kill limit later.
“It’s a foot in the door, to get people used to [an] idea that’s wrong: fishing a population that hasn’t recovered from near extinction,” says Chris Koenig, a retired researcher who studied the species for 25 years at the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory.
A combination of pressures has prevented Florida grouper populations from rebounding, researchers say. The Sunshine State has regularly experienced massive red tides, which produce a toxin deadly to fish. A cold snap in 2010 had an especially severe, long-lasting effect on juvenile goliath groupers living in estuaries. And pollution and dredging have destroyed large swaths of Florida’s mangroves, where juveniles spend years maturing before swimming to the open ocean.
Recent population data do not justify any resumption of fishing, scientists say. Citizen science dive surveys found a decrease of more than 50% in adult goliath groupers from 2010 to 2020. During this year’s spawning season, which lasts from August to early October, divers found fewer breeding adults than in 2010. And because the juveniles take up to 6 years to mature, a recent uptick in the juvenile population has not yet boosted overall numbers.
There’s another reason not to kill and eat goliath groupers, Koenig and other scientists say: They contain high levels of methyl mercury, a potent neurotoxin. A 2019 study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin found the majority of groupers sampled from Florida waters, including juveniles, contained toxin levels that exceeded federal recommendations for consumption.
The scientists’ letter to the commission also rebutted a point made by some Florida residents to the panel it should allow fishing to resume because the goliath grouper is an invasive species that is overconsuming other fish and damaging the ecology of Florida’s coral reefs.