Goliath grouper a spectacular underwater sight



If you’re an avid, advanced scuba diver, you might want to drop whatever plan you made for Thursday or the next few days and head to Jupiter.

This is the peak of the annual spawning aggregation of Goliath grouper at several artificial and natural reefs from 60 to 130 feet deep off the Palm Beach County town. You may get to swim with up to 100 of the mottled brown, gentle fish that grow to the size of Mini Coopers and were once in danger of extinction. Try to contain your excitement and avoid chasing them underwater. They’ll just boom at you — it sounds like a muffled bass drum — and swim away.

Best viewing is at Hole in the Wall — a deep, natural cavern — also the “wreck trek” that consists of the Zion Train, Miss Jenny and Esso Bonaire, and at individual wrecks such as the Sun Mariner tug and the MG111. If you don’t have a boat, several local dive operators will be happy to escort you.

“You can’t see fish that large and that many anywhere else in the world,” said Chris Koenig, a retired FSU research professor who has studied Goliath grouper for more than two decades.

Goliath grouper are found off both Florida coasts, as well as the Caribbean and off West Africa. But there’s nothing like the Jupiter aggregation in late summer where fish travel from as far as Northeast Florida’s St. Mary’s River and the Gulf of Mexico off Fort Myers to meet and reproduce on the wrecks and reefs. Most are gone by mid-October, but a few remain in the area year round. They can range in size from about 100 pounds to 800 pounds.

“Like a VW bus — just hanging there,” said Hollywood scuba diver Patti Hanley.

The huge grouper, nearly wiped out by overfishing in the 1970s and ’80s, have made a comeback since their harvest was banned in 1990. Recreational anglers complain they gobble hooked snook, permit, and other fish before they can be brought into the boat. Commercial fishers blame Goliaths for decimating other fish populations.

Many want the fishery re-opened to harvest.

But dive operators like captain Randy Jordan of Emerald Charters in Jupiter want Goliaths to remain a protected species.

“The important thing is to monetize Goliath grouper to show they’re worth a lot more money to eco-tourism than they are dead,” Jordan said. “People come from all over the world. They rent scuba gear. They charter a boat. It seems to me one Goliath could be worth a million dollars.”

There may be a way to satisfy both sides, according to Koenig.

“Both the recreational fishing and diving ecotourism industries can have what they want, but it has to be done cautiously,” Koenig said.

While the giant groupers are showing up in greater numbers, they also have suffered some recent setbacks, the scientist said. For one thing, mangrove habitats that shelter them as juveniles — through about age 5 — are disappearing. And the two-week deep freeze in early 2010 killed many young fish that were too small to make it to deeper, warmer waters. Koenig says it will be 2015 before scientists can gauge the species’ recovery.

In the meantime, he said, there’s no scientific baseline to establish the stock size before Goliaths were nearly wiped out more than two decades ago — no information on abundance or catch rates for comparisons today. Previous stock assessments were rejected under peer review, he said, because they amounted to “guessing.”

Koenig said he’s preparing a research paper arguing that Goliath grouper should be managed in a similar way to marine mammals. Among the recommendations for the future: maintaining the harvest ban on spawning aggregations; setting a recreational slot limit that prevents harvest of the largest spawners; and establishing a tag program similar to tarpon where an angler would have to pay a premium to keep one fish per year.

“This is how you manage an extremely vulnerable fish,” Koenig said. “It would be a great system if people would do it and not get greedy. Give everyone a piece of the pie but without doing damage to the population of these fish.”

Read more Outdoors stories from the Miami Herald

  • Fishing report

    Captain Glyn Austin of Going Coastal Fishing Charters out of Sebastian reported that catch-and-release fishing for snook with live baits and artificial lures day and night has been outstanding in and around the Sebastian Inlet all the way north to the Patrick Air Force Base. Redfish and a few permits are biting in the Sebastian Inlet and are being caught on small blue crabs. Along the beaches, tarpon, bonito, jacks and sharks can be targeted all the way to Port Canaveral. These fish have been feeding along the big baitfish schools. Offshore reef fishing has been good for cobias and mangrove snappers up to 12 pounds.

A large Goliath grouper nestled into the Bonaire shipwreck off Jupiter.


    Outdoors feature: Goliath groupers make recovery but harvest remains on hold

    Dropping into the roiled, murky waters 60 feet deep off Jupiter Inlet on Monday, I heard the annual spawning aggregation of Goliath groupers before I actually saw it. Below me, I could barely make out the wreck of the MG 111 or the mottled, gentle giants that show up each year between late July and mid-October to keep their species going. But the Goliaths already had seen our group of divers and weren’t too happy about our visit. They emitted loud, bass booming noises that sound a little like gun reports – probably to alert each other and to warn us not to get too cozy.

 <span class="cutline_leadin">Under the sea:</span> The ferro cement sailboat Usikusiku sits 75 feet deep on the ocean floor after being deployed Tuesday as an artificial reef off Hollywood. It already is attracting marine life.


    Sailboat finds new life in final resting place

    The 43-foot ferro cement sailboat doesn’t look very impressive sitting on the ocean floor about 75 feet deep off Hollywood. It’s plain and bare with no design flourishes.

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