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A Gentle Giant Gets A Reprieve

goliath grouper viewed head-on
photo by Angela Collins, courtesy the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Bruiser, my old friend and fellow Floridian, is safe – at least for now.

Bruiser is a fish. As you might guess from his name, he is a very large fish: a goliath grouper, in fact, the largest variant of that species you often find on restaurant menus here in the Sunshine State. But the grouper on your sandwich is not a goliath grouper. Harvesting them for commercial or sport purposes has been illegal in Florida since 1990, and in the Gulf Coast states and the U.S. Caribbean for almost as long, though Florida anglers are allowed to catch and release.

I met Bruiser sometime around the winter of 2006. I had recently earned my scuba certification, and I liked to dive with the boats off Key Largo. That was also where Bruiser preferred to hang out. Some of the local dive operators, though not the ones I patronized, made a habit of hand-feeding underwater wildlife, the better to attract paying customers.

So when I encountered Bruiser on the reef about 45 minutes off the dock, he was jonesing for a free meal. He swam right up to us, all 350 pounds of him, pleading with a face only a mother could love. A mother grouper, that is.

This is not a pretty fish. Think of other big, agile, top-of-the-food-chain ocean predators: mako sharks, killer whales, bluefin tuna. A goliath grouper is nothing like them. If those other apex predators are the attack submarines or coast guard cutters in Mother Nature’s naval fleet, a goliath grouper would be the Staten Island Ferry. It likes to eat creatures that don’t require too much effort to catch, like clams or lobsters. Or dead mullet hand-fed to them by local divers.

But what the goliath grouper lacks in looks or athleticism, it makes up in charm. No bluefin tuna is going to swim right up to you and look you in the eye. Neither will a mako shark, unless it plans to eat you. (Fairness requires me to point out that mako sharks are normally found far from land and rarely attack humans.)

Divers may be fond of goliath groupers, but Florida fisherman are less enthusiastic. This is largely because the opportunistic hunters like easy-to-catch food, including fish already hooked on an angler’s line. Many fishermen further claim that the goliath groupers are eating fish such as a snapper and their smaller grouper cousins, reducing stocks of the other species. This claim runs counter to evidence that most goliath groupers subsist mainly on crustaceans, but since around 40 percent of Florida anglers surveyed by researchers at Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and the University of Miami say they have seen a goliath grouper eat a fish they were trying to catch within the prior year, it is not hard to see why the idea took hold.

Everyone agrees that the harvesting ban has succeeded in allowing goliath grouper populations to recover after the species nearly disappeared in the 1970s and ’80s. But not everyone agrees that the population is robust enough to allow harvesting today. This became the crux of the debate before the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which recently considered whether to lift the ban.

Ultimately, commissioners decided to leave the harvesting ban in place, at least for now. Michael Sole, a member of the commission, said, “Based upon the data and the science presented, I just don’t see that it’s viable to even attempt a limited harvest at this stage.” But Sole and his fellow commissioners allowed for the possibility that they may permit fishing soon if data supports the idea that goliath grouper populations have fully recovered.

I am not against harvesting fish and game. In fact, I intermittently hold a Florida fishing license. It does the fish more good than it does me; my track record shows that I am no threat to the fish, while I probably scare away predators. If sound science shows that the goliath grouper can tolerate some recreational or even commercial fishing, I’m okay with that. I like grouper sandwiches as much as the next guy.

But Bruiser still sits in the back of my mind. I don’t know if he is still out there. I have not gone diving off Key Largo in a long time, and the most recent published reference to him I saw was from a few years ago. But he has been hand-fed. Hooking him would be about as sporting as shooting a goat in a petting zoo.

My real objection is to the manipulation of wildlife by feeding or otherwise disturbing their natural behaviors. “A fed bear is a dead bear,” as the saying goes. And so is a fed grouper, if killing grouper becomes legal again.

Goliath grouper have been described as “generally fearless” even before nearly 30 years of protection. Miami diver James Woodard told the Miami Herald, “You’re awarding a trophy fish to essentially a lazy hunter.” When you consider fish like Bruiser, who has been conditioned to find humans not only harmless but a source of easy food, I can understand why some conservationists warn that it would be easy to again overfish these giants quickly and without much effort.

So maybe, before my state’s wildlife managers decide to legalize goliath grouper harvesting, they can impose a multiyear moratorium on feeding them. At least that might give Bruiser and his malconditioned buddies a chance to revert to more natural activities than investigating divers who might be bearing snacks – or spears.

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