Getting close to a mountainous Goliath grouper is one of my favorite things to do in the water. It's amazing how easily approachable they can be.
On Molasses Reef, in the nooks and crannies, they seem a bit more docile than on the Spiegel Grove. We are fortunate to have them protected in our waters. Goliaths are a drawing card for dive operators. Particularly for new divers, approaching an animal that weighs more than twice as much as you do is a memorable experience. I always stop for a Goliath grouper.
On the down side, I have seen many with hooks and leaders hanging out of their mouths, and several with spear injuries (in the SPA for crying out loud!). There is even one on the Spiegel Grove with a big fat lip -- almost like the Hulk dove the Spiegel Grove and cold-cocked a Goliath.
In the last couple of weeks I have seen a lot written about the upcoming South Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico Fisheries meeting about re-opening the Goliath grouper fishery. After over two decades of protection, some now feel it's time to take Goliath grouper again. There are some perceptions being perpetrated that rationalize the taking of these magnificent animals.
I wrote about Goliaths a couple years ago and referenced this episode of Changing Seas: http://www.changingseas.tv/episode101.html. I thought who better to give me an update than Don DeMaria, who at one time harvested Goliaths, and now works with the scientific community on conserving the species. Don essentially began the conservation process after he noticed severe declines at known aggregation sites.
According to Don, "We have something very special in South Florida and the Gulf with Goliath groupers. There is no other place in the world that has Goliath aggregations like we observe here. This was emphasized to me clearly, again, when I took a Cousteau team to one of the sites, and they were astounded by what they filmed. This is a truly unique treasure that should be preserved."
Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres discusses the question of re-opening the fishery on her Grouper Luna blog. She summarizes her finds as such: "In conclusion, the recovering population of the Goliath grouper in Florida is not the cause of declining lobster and fish stocks in the region. Instead, overfishing is the main cause. The Goliath grouper could provide ecological and socio-economic benefits as top-down control on lobster predators, in ecotourism, and as a potential biocontrol agent for invasive lionfishes. Culling the Goliath grouper is not supported by the scientific evidence and continued protection of the species is required."
She neutralizes the five biggest myths for rationalizing the position to re-open the fishery. See her blog: http://grouperluna.wordpress.com/ and scroll down the page to see these two posts: 5 Goliath Grouper Myths and Goliath Groupers Under Review.
Enough said. Come to the meeting and learn more. The details are here: http://safmc.net/meetings/other-meetings.
While I was updating myself on the Goliath grouper situation, another series of studies caught my eye. The smaller cousin of the Goliath, the red hind, is another grouper species that was on the verge of collapse, and has gone through a recovery. Some of the findings from these studies could have important implications for conservation efforts in the Keys. The piece I spent the most time with is by Richard Nemeth of the University of the Virgin Islands. You can download it here: http://timgimages.com/PDF/USVI_RedHind_Nemeth.pdf
The known spawning aggregations of Nassau and yellow-fin groupers were decimated in the 1980's in the USVI, causing the populations to collapse. In classic serial fishing progression, commercial fishermen began targeting the next grouper on the list, a smaller species, the red hind. At that point in time, red hind accounted for over 70 percent of all finish caught in the Virgin Islands (1987 to 1992).
Over the years of concentrated fishing effort the average length decreased and the ratio of females to males rose to 15:1, demonstrating a skewed harvest of males over females. The fishery was on the verge of collapse, just like Nassau and yellow-fins the previous decade. They instituted a three-month seasonal closure covering the spawning season on Red Hind Bank. Signs of recovery began to manifest themselves, with average lengths increasing and a fall in the female to male ratio to 4:1 during the 1990s.
With the support of local fishermen, the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council established the area as a Marine Conservation District in 2000, the first no-take fishery reserve in the US Virgin Islands. This 41 square kilometer closure accounts for only 1.5 percent of the total fishing grounds in the Virgin Islands. This was a change in paradigm from traditional single-species management via temporal closure to an ecosystem-based approach that protected the entire habitat.
From 1997 to 2000 (last three years of the seasonal closure), the density of the spawning population increased by over 200 percent -- about 66 percent per year. Following the establishment of the no-take zone, density and biomass of red hind increased 60 percent, and the peak spawning densities more than doubled during the first several years of the zone designation. The spawning population size grew from 11,000 fish in 1997 to 26,229 (2000), 38,43 (2001) and a mind-boggling 84,000 in 2003.
What started out as a species-specific management effort stepped up to the next level as an ecosystem-based scenario, and the results speak for themselves. Give credit to the stakeholder groups and fisheries managers for working together on a viable solution, and for validating an ecosystem-based approach.
Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tim is a member of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. Opinions expressed by Tim are not the official views of the FKNMS.