For the first time since 1990, goliath groupers, the charismatic behemoths of warm Atlantic waters, can be legally harvested by anglers. On March 3, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) approved a limited quota of 200 tags. The first season will start in 2023 and span March 1 through May 31. Hook-and-line is the only acceptable method, and fishing must occur in state waters.
FWC will issue permit tags via random-draw lottery at $150 for residents and $500 for out-of-state anglers. Only 50 of the 200 tags may be filled in the waters of Everglades National Park. Additionally, Martin County south through the Atlantic Coast of the Keys, all of the St. Lucie River and its tributaries, and Dry Tortugas National Park are all off-limits for goliath grouper harvest.
FWC has carefully implemented this highly regulated season to maintain the population at a healthy level while allowing anglers to make the most of the resource. MeatEater’s own Mike Kmon, who used to compete on the professional fishing circuit around the Sunshine State, has some thoughts on the matter.
“I think it's very similar to a lot of the issues that we deal with here in the West with predator management,” Mike said. “Those big goliaths, they're no better than a shark. When you're out fishing off of a reef or a big wreck or something like that, it's not uncommon to see 10 or 12 or more of them down there. They steal an awful lot of fish from you and are really tough on a lot of the captains trying to make a living.”
However, according to statements in the commission meeting, FWC does not expect to see any immediate alleviation of the lost catch issue because the slot limit is only 24 to 36 inches for the grouper tags. The IGFA all-tackle world record goliath weighed in at 680 pounds.
With frequent news of widespread fish kills and red tide plaguing Florida’s coastlines, it might come as a shock to some that these goliath fisheries are actually healthy enough to host a limited season. And adult grouper populations typically reside in waters deep enough to stay clear of the toxic algal blooms.
“Those very young fish that are under 2 feet spend most of their young juvenile life back in estuaries and mangroves, and these are the areas that are being affected by red tides,” Mike said. “If those young can't survive because of water issues, that's one thing that they’ll really have to monitor.”
FWC intentionally designed the March through May season to avoid peak spawning time and the worst of the red tide events. However, some folks still have concerns the apex predator will be overfished like they were a generation ago.
While 98% of the 3,000 public comments submitted to FWC supported the change, over 60,000 people signed a petition titled “Save the Goliath Grouper.” The petitions’ main concerns are that population numbers may not be completely accurate and that harvesting will impact business in the diving industry. However, the big fish especially sought out for viewing by diving groups will not be harvested with this tag system.
“I think the biggest fear is that we fall into the same pattern that we did 50 years ago—which was to go out with a handline and a wench and keep the 400- and 500-pounders,” Mike said. “And they are easy to catch, truly. They don't have a whole lot to be afraid of and they’ll eat anything. So they’re a species that can be harvested faster than they can keep up with from a population standpoint.”
Brian Kiel, a lifelong Florida angler and retired FWC marine samples scientist, told WUFT News that he sees both sides of the argument but believes FWC is lifting the harvest ban prematurely.
“The data out there that looks at goliath grouper populations and is researched by specialists in the field just seems to point to it being too early to open up permits,” Kiel said. “While I do dive, and I do see them, I personally think we should be cautious moving forward. It’s a native Florida species that we don’t want to waste.”
With only 200 tags available and post-harvest requirements that demand proper tagging, reporting harvest data, and submitting a fin clip for genetic analysis, many anglers believe it’s unlikely that this fishery will plummet as it did in the ’80s when few regulations were in place.
“The cost of fishing licenses and the money that's coming from these tags is all going to go, for the most part, right back into fisheries conservation management. And that's no small thing to shake a stick at,” Mike concluded.
Although the tag price is undoubtedly higher than what you’d pay for a few fillets of black grouper at the market, we’d wager that a fried goliath sandwich will absolutely live up to its name. And it’s damn near impossible to put a price tag on a great meal that comes with a great fishing story.