FWC may OK limited harvest of small goliaths

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For the first time in more than 30 years, Florida fishing regulators are on the verge of allowing for a limited, highly regulated harvest of the goliath grouper.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will take up a staff recommendation to allow for the catch of juvenile-sized goliaths in all state waters except for except those of Palm Beach County south through Atlantic coast of the Keys, where spearing the large fish by divers.

If adopted as written, the goliath regulations would allow for a recreational harvest of 200 fish per year, no more than one fish per person with permit and tag issued via lottery. Only a hook-and-line could be used, to take goliaths with a limit of between 20 and 36 inches.

The season would be limited to March through May season, which regulators say would reduce additional pressure on goliath when they may be susceptible to impacts from red tide events, which primarily occur in the summer and late fall.

In addition, the 200 fishermen lucky enough to have their names drawn in a lottery would pay a $500 special use permit fee, intended to offset cost of materials and staff time needed to conduct the experimental three- to five-year program.

“However, the commission could choose to charge up to $3,600 based on season length and the statutory limit of $300 per week,” reads the report, authored by Jessica McCawley, from FWC’s Marine Fisheries Management division.

In the division’s analysis, McCawley wrote that while goliath abundance is expected to continue to increase, the fish has “life history characteristics and behaviors that make them more vulnerable to natural mortality events and overfishing, (and they) require a unique management approach for conservation success.

“Numerous factors in goliath’s life history make them more susceptible to overfishing, such as their large size and tendency to gather in high numbers at predictable locations, making them easy to target and catch,” she wrote.

“The agency recognizes goliath’s role in the ecosystem as a large and important predator that helps maintain healthy, resilient natural reef ecosystems. FWC also understands that there are diverse stakeholder values for goliath and management should account for this by providing multiple means of access to this fishery while also promoting continued population rebuilding,” she wrote. “Currently, access is provided to anglers through catch-and-release fishing and recreational divers through sightseeing opportunities.”

The report says fishery managers, researchers, and fishermen continue to observe increasing numbers of goliath in Florida, but notes that federal fishery management councils’ scientific advisors have continued to reject the use of the federal stock assessment process, citing unknowns about life history such as uncertainty about maximum age, the absence of long-term datasets and uncertainty regarding historical landings, and lack of information about the stock outside the southeastern U.S.

It notes that in 2006, NOAA Fisheries removed goliath from their Species of Special Concern , and in 2018, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature improved their listing of goliath from “critically endangered” to “vulnerable” on their Red List of Threatened Species.

“Ultimately, opinions on goliath management are strongly held and highly variable,” McCawley wrote. “Those who support a harvest option typically do so because they see the population as being rebuilt in Florida, that goliath are overpopulated and harming the ecosystem, they see goliath as a nuisance when targeting other species, or they want the opportunity to harvest a goliath.

“Those who do not support a harvest typically point to goliath as being important to the ecosystem, their high value for ecotourism, potentially harmful mercury levels found in larger goliath,” she wrote. “Or that rebuilding is not complete throughout their historic range; or they may believe that harvest should never be allowed for this species.”

The proposed rule of allowing for no more than a fish of 20 to 36 inches total length is designed to conserve reproductive adult goliath, minimize concerns associated with mercury levels, and provide an opportunity to harvest a desirable fish. Adult goliaths are known to length of up to eight feet, and weights as much as 700 to 800 pounds.

“Goliath within the proposed slot limit are still in their juvenile life stage and typically weigh anywhere between 5 and 32 pounds,” reads the report. “The proposed minimum of 20 inches total length coincides with the size at which goliath transition from their nursery habitat to a more estuarine environment. Most goliath within this size range are typically found in nearshore environments, prior to moving offshore and maturing into adults.

“Long-term rebuilding of a stock requires the rebuilding of fish in older age classes,” it reads. “Individuals within the proposed slot limit have shown the largest increases in abundance in recent years. The slot minimum size limit protects the smallest individuals, which are the most susceptible to natural mortality. Conversely, the slot maximum size limit prevents removal of reproductive adults and conserves fish in older age classes.”

The proposal would require permit holders to attach a tag to the lower jawbone of the harvested fish, and report information about their catch to FWC. They may also be required to submit a biological sample, which could include a fin clip from the harvested fish to be used for genetic analysis.

The rule change is expected to be taken up at the FWC meeting on Wednesday morning, Oct. 6, and if approved, staff would gather public feedback and return for a final public hearing in March 2022.

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