Florida weighs allowing limited harvest of goliath grouper – WSVN 7News | Miami News, Weather, Sports

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (AP) – Florida may lift its three-decade ban on catching and killing Goliath groupers. Wildlife officials say coastal fish numbers have recovered enough after extinction to allow for a limited harvest, but the proposal is firmly opposed by environmentalists who say it is still endangered.

On Wednesday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will review a staff proposal that 100 goliaths may be caught and kept annually for a four-year period. The proposal is backed by fishing groups and involves a lottery that issues licenses for $ 300 per week that any recipient can use to catch and kill a Goliath. The proceeds fund the research of the species.

The Goliath nearly died of overfishing and pollution in the 1980s and is not allowed to be fished in any other state or federal waters.

The fish is a favorite of underwater photographers for its docile behavior and mammoth size – adults typically weigh 180 kilograms but can exceed 800 kilograms. While the species’ population is unknown, state officials believe it has grown enough to make the limited catch possible.

“Goliath is a recovering stock that is becoming more common in parts of Florida, especially on artificial reefs,” the commission’s staff wrote in their recommendation.

This is a claim contested by those who oppose the lifting of the ban. They suggest major diebacks over the past decade from cold weather and other causes.

“The (Wildlife Commission) claims the population is growing, but that’s just not possible,” said Christopher Koenig, who has been studying Goliaths with wife Felicia Coleman for nearly 30 years. Koenig and Coleman are both retired marine biologists from Florida State University.

Coleman also points out that the Goliath contains high levels of the neurotoxin methylmercury, which makes eating especially dangerous for children and pregnant women.

“Why would you open? You put people at risk, ”she said.

The Goliath once stretched over a large area of ​​the ocean, from the Carolinas across the Caribbean to the Atlantic Ocean off Brazil, but its number declined sharply from the 1960s onwards. By 1990, when Florida banned its catch, it was almost gone.

First, it has been overfished – the Goliath is easy to catch, lives in known locations, and spawns in specific locations. Florida’s proposal would prohibit catching the fish in spawning grounds and during the spawning season from July to September.

Plus, the first six years of Goliath are hidden among mangroves, trees that grow in shallow coastal waters. Many mangroves have been lost to development and pollution, which limits the growth opportunities for young animals.

Today the Goliath occurs mainly off South Florida. Adults live in reefs and shipwrecks, digging holes for other fish to hide.

A limited harvest “would provide a unique recreational fishing opportunity in Florida,” the Wildlife Commission staff wrote. In 2018, the commission, which then included five of its current members, brushed aside a similar proposal.

The proposal limits the size of the Goliaths that could be killed to a range of 1.2 to 2 meters and 32 to 90 kilograms – that’s a young adult 7-10 years old. Outside of this area they would be released, as all Goliaths now captured are supposed to be, although poaching is a problem. Goliaths have a lifespan of 35 years or more.

The Florida Coastal Conservation Association, a recreational fishing group, believes goliath numbers can handle the limited catch, said Trip Aukeman, their advocacy director.

“The fishery looks healthy and there should be some sort of harvest for recreational fishermen,” said Aukeman. A limited catch would provide scientists with samples to determine the health of the species, he said.

Some fishermen also argue that a large Goliath population depletes snapper and other wild fish, but Koenig and Coleman disagree, saying that Goliaths mainly eat crabs and less valuable fish.

Aukeman agrees that methylmercury is a problem, and says his group is in favor of lowering the minimum and maximum sizes at which the Goliath can be kept. These younger fish would be less poisonous and could be eaten.

“I don’t think they should be caught just to get a picture – they have to be used,” said Aukeman.

But Koenig and Coleman say the Goliath’s future is too precarious to allow for a harvest.

They argue that fish numbers remain below historical levels and appear to plateau or decrease and that it is prone to mass extinction. One danger is that teens under the age of 6 are prone to cold weather – Koenig and Coleman say a prolonged cold snap that hit South Florida in 2010 killed 95% of that age group.

All age groups are prone to red tide, a poisonous algal bloom that spreads over vast areas. Outbreaks occur naturally, but are also triggered by manure runoff and sewage.

Harvesters say, instead of catching goliaths, Florida should use the fish to lure divers into the state. A 2016 University of Miami survey of divers outside of the state found they would pay more than $ 300 to get a trip to a Goliath community location without spending on hotels, restaurants, and other nearby amenities.

Gerald Carroll, who owns a dive center in Palm Beach County, said trips to Goliaths account for 25% of his sales. They are popular with divers because they don’t escape and with guides because they stay on the same reefs and wrecks.

“It’s very easy for us to arrange trips to see them and when we jump in the water they don’t get scared, even if there are 10 or 15 divers,” said Carroll.

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