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Goliath grouper: huge, majestic, overfished

Updated Friday 16th November 2012

In this extended interview, Saving Species looks the goliath grouper, a huge and endangered fish that's getting some much-needed protection in Florida.

This extended interview from Saving Species looks at the Atlantic Goliath Grouper, a huge, majestic fish only found in significant numbers today off the coast of Florida.

At up to 2.5m in length, they are outsized only by the few remaining sharks and they are critically endangered across their range due to historical overfishing. Goliaths are now strictly protected in Florida.

Helen Scales meets her first wild goliaths in the company of Dr Sarah Frias-Torres from ORCA (Ocean Research and Conservation Association) who is studying many aspects of these huge fish including a survey of scuba divers that she hopes will show that a goliath is worth more alive than dead.

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Goliath grouper Creative commons image Icon Goliath Grouper / Gerald Carter / http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/ under Creative-Commons license A goliath grouper Copyright open university

 

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Dr Helen Scales: 
I’m really excited, I’m about to get to meet hopefully my first goliath grouper.  I’m here with Sarah.  What are we going to see down there and what should I do, how should I be behaving when I get down to see these big fish?

Dr Sarah Frias-Torres: 
Okay, so this is goliath grouper is spawning aggregation site.  The site is basically a wreck, and there’s also natural rock reef.  The first thing you’re going to see is quite a number of big groupers.  Don’t go after them; they will come to you.  Don’t chase after them, just position yourself against the current, they will think you are one of them.  Also if you get way too close they’re going to make this very loud boom sound.  Don’t be afraid, they are not going to attack you; they’re just telling you keep off.  Above all relax and enjoy the dive and let’s go diving.

Dive, dive, dive!

Dr Sarah Frias-Torres: 
Goliath grouper throughout its region, which is the tropical and subtropical Atlantic, they are critically endangered.  Meaning in many places they are extinct, which means they’re gone forever.  And in the places where they are anywhere found in few numbers, they are very close to extinction.  The only exception is Florida, and that’s because there was a fishing ban in 1990 through which the species is fully protected - you can’t kill them, you can’t harm them or anything like that.  And because of that we’re having some significant numbers in Florida, that’s the only reason.  So the only place where they’re not just a step before extinction right now is Florida.

Dr Helen Scales: 
And it’s generally overfishing has been the major threat to this species?

Dr Sarah Frias-Torres: 
Yes, overfishing has been the main threat to this species.  What you see is that beginning in the 1900s that’s when the trophy fishing began.  People will fish goliath grouper just for the thrill of catching a really big fish.  They will take the fish out of the water, take a picture of it, and then let it rot in the sun or throw it away.  And then beginning in the 1950s we see a commercial fishery of goliath grouper.  And this commercial fishery was basically to turn the goliath groupers into fertiliser, cat food, so was never a fishery to feed people.  And in the late 1980s we have reached commercial extinction, which in this case was equivalent to near extinction of this species.  And this is just the step just prior to total extinction. 

Dr Helen Scales: 
In terms of the current threats to goliath grouper, so there has been this ban on fishing them in Florida since 1990, but there are still problems that the goliath grouper face today.

Dr Sarah Frias-Torres: 
Natural threats: what happens is this species is tropical basically.  So if you have a cold water spell for any significant amount of days, and the fish can’t go away from that, they will die.  We had very cold winters in 2009 and 2010 in Florida to the point that the shallow waters in the mangroves they became real, very cold, significantly cold, and that killed the entire population of juvenile goliath groupers living in the mangroves.  So that’s a significant loss.  The other natural threat they have is when there’s presence of red tides.  We have red tides which are caused by microscopic algae, and those red tides kill the adult goliath groupers.  So you have a natural situation in which the population is sandwiched, mortality in the juveniles and mortality in the adults.

So now we have a situation where in Florida we have strict regulations, killing or damaging a goliath grouper carries a $10,000 fine, even the possibility of time in jail.  But elsewhere outside Florida, throughout the Atlantic and the Caribbean, there’s no protection.  So whatever few goliath groupers are left, they are still being targeted. 

Dr Helen Scales: 
You’re doing a lot of active research here in Florida into the goliath groupers, what are the questions that your science is trying to answer?  What are the big question marks that remain about this species that we need to answer in order to help understand and protect this as a species?

Dr Sarah Frias-Torres: 
In the case of goliath grouper what I’m trying to understand is a very important phase in their life, which is the spawning aggregation event.  Which is when the groupers come from all over the state of Florida, they come together into a few places, just two or three places that we know of, and they just want to breed, so it’s very important: what is their behaviour when they do that.  We need to know how, what is the dynamics of the males reaching out to the females, when the spawning event is going to be ready, how are they affected by the presence of recreational scuba divers as well, because now without any fishing industry, the goliath groupers have become the poster child for ecotourism.

Dr Sarah Frias-Torres: 
Hi Jack, I’m Dr Sarah Frias-Torres, I do research on goliath grouper -

Jack: 
Okay.

Dr Sarah Frias-Torres: 
- and we’ve been diving together today, you saw some goliath groupers.  So if you will be so kind to fill in this diver survey so I’ll know more about divers and how they interact with the goliath groupers.  This will be very useful for research, okay, would you like to do that, thank you very much.

Jack: 
Not a problem.

Dr Sarah Frias-Torres: 
Part of my research includes a socioeconomic evaluation of this ecotourism.  So in a paper I’m working on already, I already found out that scuba divers come from all over the world, from many many different countries in Florida and from within the different states in United States.  They come to Florida just to dive with the goliath grouper.  And now what I’m doing, I’m conducting all these diver surveys to see what is the experience of the divers once they encounter the goliath grouper: what they actually do when they see the goliath grouper; how the divers behave and the effect of those divers onto the goliath groupers; and also what the divers are willing to do, how much time and money are they willing to invest to be able to see these goliath groupers for many years to come.

What I’m hoping to demonstrate is that a live goliath grouper is worth more money than a dead one.  And that seems very logical because you can only kill a grouper once, but you can see it alive many times.  You can dive with a grouper many times.  Considering these groupers live up to 60 maybe 70 years old, imagine the return of money you have per live grouper over the lifetime of the animal. 

Currently the biggest threat for this fishing ban to be eliminated is the pressure from the recreational and the commercial fishing lobby.  They argue that the goliath groupers are eating everything in the reef.  So when they see the population of lobsters and fish coming down, they blame the goliath grouper for that.  And the argument they make is that it’s such a big fish it must be eating everything.  But the research done so far demonstrates that goliath groupers are not impacting the fisheries those people depend on, because they feed mostly on invertebrates and also on poisonous fish that the fishermen don’t target.

So the only reason behind the calls for culling or thinning out the population of goliath grouper are these assumptions that they are eating everything - what I hope to do through science and through science based conservation is to demonstrate that that is not the case, that goliath groupers are not responsible for all these horrible things the fishermen say they are, and again that a live goliath grouper is worth more money than a dead one.

Dr Helen Scales: 
So we’ve just come back from our dive, and I did get to see my first goliaths and it was just a fabulous experience.  They were really, I've never seen so many big fish in one place, they were I guess between a metre and two metres in size, but the fish were hunkered down right on the bottom keeping out of the current.  I think I did a reasonably good job.  I did hear them booming though.  Do you think I got too close, was that why they did that?

Dr Sarah Frias-Torres: 
You actually behaved really well.  It wasn’t you; it was somebody else who was coming with us who got too close.  But yes what you saw, you saw that they were hanging down on the seafloor trying to keep themselves in position even with the strong current, and again what they are doing is just, they’re just relaxing, chilling out, checking out who are the males, who are the females, and they are just getting ready to spawn and to breed. 

Dr Helen Scales: 
So in a few weeks’ time it’ll be a different scene down there.  What will it be like when the aggregation is in full swing?  If I came back then, what would I see?

Dr Sarah Frias-Torres: 
A month from today there will be quite a massive aggregation; I've counted up to 70 to 80 in this one place.  But at that time you will see them very focused on breeding.  On all their courtship behaviours, you’re going to see dark coloured males and pale coloured females, and the males and the females swim side by side.  Sometimes the females will roll over, over the sides to show the males their big belly full of eggs.  That usually it’s a very clear sign that they’re interested in spawning.  And they are going to be waiting for the full moon for that spawning to happen.  So that’s what you can see a month from today.

Dr Helen Scales: 
Big fish are obviously a wonderful thing to see.  You know, we’ve just been out diving and it’s a fabulous experience to be in the presence of one of these things, but it’s more important than that, these are vital species for the ecosystem as a whole.

Dr Sarah Frias-Torres: 
The importance of protecting big fish, and goliath group being one of them, is that they’re not only amazing to see and they could be a big draw to ecotourism, but also we know from scientific evidence that big fish are important in controlling the balance in marine ecosystems.  So in a way if you take care of the big fish, the big fish in turn will take care of you.

 

 

 

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