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FL May Allow Goliath Grouper Fishing   05/09 09:16


   FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida may lift its three-decade ban on 
catching and killing goliath grouper. Wildlife officials say the coastal fish's 
numbers have recovered sufficiently from near extinction to allow a limited 
harvest, but the proposal is strongly opposed by environmentalists who say it 
is still at risk.

   On Wednesday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will 
consider a staff proposal to allow 100 goliaths to be caught and kept annually 
during a four-year period. Supported by fishing groups, the proposal calls for 
a lottery to issue $300-per-week licenses that allow each recipient to catch 
and kill one goliath, with proceeds funding research of the species.

   The goliath almost died off in the 1980s from overfishing and pollution and 
is not allowed to be caught in any other state or federal waters.

   The fish is a favorite of underwater photographers for its docile demeanor 
and mammoth size -- adults typically weigh 400 pounds (180 kilograms) but can 
exceed 800 (360 kilograms). While the species' population is unknown, state 
officials believe it has grown enough to allow the limited catch.

   "Goliath is a recovering stock, becoming more abundant in parts of Florida, 
especially on artificial reefs," the commission staff wrote in its 

   That's a contention disputed by those who oppose lifting the fishing ban. 
They point to major die-offs over the past decade from cold weather and other 

   "The (wildlife commission) claims the population is growing, but that is 
just not possible," said Christopher Koenig, who along with his wife, Felicia 
Coleman, has studied goliaths for almost 30 years. Koenig and Coleman are both 
retired marine biologists with Florida State University.

   Coleman also points out that the goliath contains high levels of the 
neurotoxin methylmercury, making it dangerous to eat, particularly for children 
and pregnant women.

   "Why would you open? You are endangering people," she said.

   The goliath once ranged over a wide swath of ocean territory, from the 
Carolinas to the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean off Brazil, but its numbers 
dropped sharply starting in the 1960s. By 1990, when Florida banned its catch, 
it was almost gone.

   First, it was overfished -- the goliath is easy to catch, living in known 
locations and spawning at specific spots. Florida's proposal would prohibit 
catching the fish at spawning sites and during spawning season, which lasts 
from July to September.

   Also, the goliath's first six years are spent hiding among mangroves, trees 
that grow in shallow coastal waters. Many mangroves have been lost to 
development and pollution, limiting where juveniles can grow.

   Today, the goliath is found mainly off South Florida. Adults live in reefs 
and shipwrecks, digging holes that provide hiding spaces for other fish.

   A limited harvest "would provide a unique recreational fishing opportunity 
in Florida," the wildlife commission staff wrote. In 2018, the commission, 
which then had five of its current members, pushed aside a similar proposal.

   The proposal limits the size of goliaths that could be killed to a range of 
4 to 6.5 feet (1.2 to 2 meters) and 70 to 200 pounds (32 to 90 kilograms) -- 
that's a young adult of 7 to 10 years. Outside that range they would be 
released, just like all goliaths caught now are supposed to be, though poaching 
is a problem. Goliaths have a lifespan of 35 years or more.

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

   "The fishery looks healthy and there should be some kind of harvest open to 
recreational fishermen," Aukeman said. A limited catch would provide scientists 
with samples to ascertain the species' health, he said.

   Some fishermen also argue a large goliath population depletes snappers and 
other game fish, but Koenig and Coleman disagree, saying goliaths primarily eat 
crabs and less-prized fish.

   Aukeman agrees methylmercury is an issue, saying his group advocates 
lowering the minimum and maximum size at which the goliath can be kept. Those 
younger fish would be less likely to be toxic and could be eaten.

   "I don't believe they should be caught just to get a picture -- they need to 
be used," Aukeman said.

   But Koenig and Coleman say the goliath's future is too precarious to allow 
any harvest.

   They argue that the fish's numbers remain below historic levels and appear 
to be plateauing or decreasing, and that it is susceptible to mass die-offs. 
One danger is that juveniles under 6 years are vulnerable to frigid weather -- 
Koenig and Coleman say a prolonged cold snap that hit South Florida in 2010 
killed 95% of that age group.

   All ages are susceptible to red tide, a toxic algae bloom that spreads over 
massive areas. Outbreaks occur naturally but are also spurred by fertilizer 
runoff and sewage.

   Harvest opponents say instead of catching goliaths, Florida should use the 
fish to lure scuba divers to the state. A 2016 University of Miami survey of 
out-of-state divers showed they would pay more than $300 for an outing to a 
goliath congregation site, not including what they would spend for hotels, 
restaurants and other area establishments.

   Gerald Carroll, who owns a Palm Beach County dive center, said trips to see 
goliaths account for 25% of his revenue. They are popular with divers because 
they don't flee, and with guides because they stay at the same reefs and wrecks.

   "It is very easy for us to arrange trips to go see them, and when we jump in 
the water, even if there are 10 or 15 divers, they don't get scared away," 
Carroll said.

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