Big change possible for goliath grouper

If you’re 27 or younger, you’ve been forbidden all your life to keep a goliath grouper. If you’re not yet old enough to vote, you were unborn or a toddler when the king of the reefs was universally called a jewfish.

Not to get too worked up over something that might not happen — grouper lovers have been let down thrice before — but it’s noteworthy that Florida is looking again at the possibility of a limited goliath-keeping season.

That’s being taken seriously enough for the Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) Commission to schedule 14 public workshops on the topic, beginning in the first three days of August at Key West, Marathon and Key Largo. Other sessions in the southern third of the state are scheduled in October at Davie, Stuart, Port Charlotte and Naples.

When all that’s done and some scientific data are added, FWC staff will report to the Commission, perhaps with a recommendation to let fishing-doers keep a few goliaths.

“The earliest goliath would come back for Commission discussion would be December 2017, and the earliest any potential changes could take effect would be in 2018,” says Amanda Nalley, an FWC spokeswoman.

That may be much too soon to buy tackle capable of boating bottom fish that weigh up to 800 pounds, because federal review will be required unless new regulations are enacted for state waters only.

That would not be without precedent, although FWC usually prefers to stay consistent with federal regulations.

The ban on keeping Goliath grouper is federal, imposed in 1990 with state concurrence. It happened because commercial and recreational fishing — including sport spearing — drastically reduced goliath abundance in the 1970s and ‘80s.

The history since then is told on FWC’s goliath web page: “Goliath grouper populations have substantially recovered since the harvest prohibition took effect.

There have been increases in abundance in certain areas (e.g., Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor and the Ten Thousand Islands), and the distribution of goliath grouper populations has extended into areas of its former range throughout Florida, including the Big Bend and Panhandle regions.

“However, it is not clear as to when they may fully recover and when harvest restrictions could be relaxed.”

Changing such rules typically requires a stock assessment, roughly equivalent to a census. The state made those in 2004 and 2010, but federal review panels weren’t satisfied with the results.

Then, in 2013, FWC joined the federal (NOAA) Gulf and and South Atlantic fishery management councils to take up the question again. That led in 2014 to another goliath stock assessment that was finished in June last year.

It was pretty positive, but the cheering was cut short by an independent panel of scientists. They said the stock assessment lacked reliable indications of goliath abundance — not just existence, but abundance — beyond South Florida.

Without yet another stock assessment, what might be the point of state reconsideration now? Here’s a logical hunch: With encouragement from fishing-doers, FWC could try to make an acceptable case for keeping goliaths caught only in state waters, and not necessarily all state waters all the time.

Here is the calendar of public workshops in the Keys, each scheduled for 5 to 8 p.m.:

  • Aug. 1: Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel, 3841 N. Roosevelt Blvd.
  • Aug. 2: Hyatt Place Marathon/Florida Keys, 1996 Overseas Highway.
  • Aug. 3: Key Largo, Murray Nelson Government Center, 102050 Overseas Highway.

For the complete calendar, see

For a lot more detail on goliath grouper, including catch and release methods, see saltwater/recreational/goliath-grouper.