Times Changing for Giant Grouper

It might as well have been the Loch Ness monster I stood over, except there was nothing either anecdotal or mystical about this giant sea monster; it was real!  The rotting carcass of what was then called a jewfish, estimated to weigh over six-hundred pounds, lay before me in the wet Gulf of Mexico sands near the base of the Pier Kahiki, which was part of a Hawaiian-themed complex at Indian Rocks Beach. The high tide had dumped the decaying beast there after fishermen had caught it using a hand gaff-sized steel hook baited with a football-sized black drum. The hook was attached to a short 3/8” steel chain, which was tied to a sturdy hemp rope they had secured to the pier’s railing.

Once I was up and on the pier’s deck, I overheard the crusty dock manager, Joe, chuckling and talking through the cigar permanently clenched in his broad, crooked mouth to a couple of tourists. “It took six of them men to pull it to shore” he was telling them. Later, when I asked Joe why they wasted such a giant fish, he followed his normal method of operation, spitting his words in my direction. “Boy, them big fish ain’t any good; anyway, they took the cheek meat with’em.”

It was the late Sixties, a time of ignorant bliss, well before most fishermen understood our oceans’ bounties were not finite. Less than a decade later, I believe it was the summer of 1975, during one of my first surfing trips to Sebastian Inlet State Park, I saw three Volkswagen Bug- sized grouper swimming along the bottom of the inlet’s main channel. Their size was amazing and unbelievable. This was the last time I saw any truly giant jewfish.

Looking back at how drastically fisheries management has changed, it might as well have been a hundred years ago. Today jewfish have been officially renamed goliath grouper. Since 1990, these remarkable fish have been fully protected in the U.S.A as a “no take” fish, and their numbers continue to grow. In fact, goliath grouper have rebounded to the point that segments of the angler population find them to be quite the nuisance.

Acting like protected California seals, goliath grouper hang out at places where they know they can steal angler’s catches. Their thieving habits alone have partially fueled a push to remove a couple of layers of Federal and State regulations protecting these endangered fish. Less restrictive rules could give fisheries managers several keen opportunities to raise research money and fisheries datum, or find ways to better protect habitat and build artificial reefs.

States like Florida could sell goliath grouper kill-tags, much like special hunting permits. They could open up a couple of goliath grouper short seasons and help the recreational sports fishing industry raise revenue. This strategy could pump major bucks into coastal fishing communities around the Sunshine State and help researchers and scientist collect valuable data. It could be a “win/win” for everybody!

However, there are serious obstacles standing in the way of this idea. Fisheries biologists understand the complexities of protecting the sustainability of these potentially huge, but slow- growing fish better than most of us. They will tell you we must protect the biggest goliath groupers or they will never return to their historical size and range.

There are two things I’ve learned about fisheries management as a member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Snapper/Grouper Advisory Panel. Management of our fisheries and other marine resources is most often driven by money and greed, and secondly, I now understand why the following statement is true. Fisheries management isn’t rocket science, it’s worse!

For more goliath grouper information, check out: National Geographic Goliath-Grouper