UF/IFAS study finds feelings run deep in goliath grouper debate

Goliath Stare 1

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Depending on one’s perspective, goliath grouper are either a conservation success story or a protected species that no longer needs help, according to a new survey from the University of Florida.

Atlantic goliath grouper, part of the sea bass family, were overfished from the 1960s through the 1980s and their numbers thinned until 1990, when a harvest moratorium was put into place in U.S. waters. As the name suggests, the slow-moving fish can reach 800 pounds and more than 8 feet in length. They’re found off Florida’s coasts, throughout the Caribbean and off West Africa.

While it appears conservation efforts have worked and goliath grouper numbers have grown, scientists still don’t have a firm grip on how well the species have recovered.

The species’ recovery is good news to some groups, such as scuba tour guides who show the impressive fish to their clients. But for some anglers who’ve had the misfortune of goliath grouper snatching their catch from fishing lines or spears, the large fish may have bounced back too well, said Kai Lorenzen, a University of Florida fisheries professor.

Lorenzen led a team of UF and Florida Sea Grant researchers that surveyed nearly 6,000 stakeholders in the goliath grouper debate and facilitated a workshop with stakeholder groups, in hopes of finding common ground. He presented the findings to policy makers at the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council this week.

“We did find a differentiated set of opinions … but we also found quite fundamental differences that can be traced to people’s feelings about marine resources use and conservation – and those things will not change,” he said.

Among the survey results:

Many commercial reef fishermen believe that goliath grouper negatively impact ecosystems by decimating other fish populations. In addition, goliath interfere with fishing operations and many commercial fishermen (43 percent of hook and line, 87 percent of spear fishermen) have had to change where and how they fish to reduce such interactions. More than 70 percent of commercial fishermen surveyed would like to see the goliath-harvesting moratorium lifted.

Most recreational anglers view goliath encounters as desirable or neutral and only 19 percent of anglers feel that goliath impact negatively on the ecosystem. Just more than 50 percent of recreational anglers would like to see the fishery re-opened. The survey also found that most fishing charter captains view the current situation neutrally, but expect a positive impact to their business if anglers were allowed to catch some goliath.

Lorenzen says that while a majority of both commercial and recreational fishermen support a controlled re-opening of the fishery, they do so mostly for different reasons: commercial fishermen because they are concerned about the impact of goliath on other species and on their fishing operations, and recreational anglers because are positively interested in harvesting some goliath.

Goliath are most popular with recreational (non-fishing) divers, of whom 87 percent considered goliath encounters desirable and 54 percent have undertaken dives specifically to view goliath. Dive charter operators benefit from this interest in goliath-viewing and expect negative impacts to their business should goliath become subject to harvest. Non-fishing divers and dive charter operators strongly favor keeping goliath off-limits to fishing.

The survey team found surprisingly broad support for limited harvest for scientific research but only, Lorenzen said, if a solid case for such a take could be made.

Lorenzen recommends that policy makers continue to seek in-depth, representative information on stakeholder views and bring groups together to communicate and look for shared solutions. Combined with more biological research to understand the status and ecological effects of goliath grouper populations, he said such engagement would help in developing sound management plans for the future.

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Contacts

Writer: Mickie Anderson, 352-273-3566, mickiea@ufl.edu

Source: Kai Lorenzen, 352-273-3646, klorenzen@ufl.edu

Submitted photo courtesy of UF/IFAS’ Bryan Fluech