They are the Goodyear blimps of the reefs, enormous fish with hearty appetites, tubby bodies and a fearlessness that brings them intimidatingly close to divers.
The goliath grouper – known until 10 years ago by the politically incorrect name jewfish – has mounted an impressive comeback since all catch of the species was banned in 1990. For many fishermen, however, the comeback has been a bit too impressive, as these giant predators, which can reach weights of more than 800 pounds, tear fish off lines and compete with divers for lobsters.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has its scientists studying the state of the grouper, with an eye toward lifting the ban. Many divers and conservationists want to the grouper to retain its protection, saying it's a unique South Florida attraction that remains vulnerable to being overfished.
But fishermen say the species has rebounded enough to go from rarity to nuisance.
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Brian Sanders, a Davie charter captain who guides anglers in the Ten Thousand Islands area, describes the goliath grouper as a remarkably lazy, opportunistic and irritating fish. A 400-pounder will park itself in the shade under his boat and wait as one of his clients fights to bring in a cobia, snook, permit or pompano. When his client reels in the exhausted fish, the goliath grouper will strike.
"Oh my God," cried one boy of about 10, he recalled, as the grouper struck during a fishing tour in the Chokoloskee area. "What was that? He got my fish!"
Sanders supports a limited catch of goliath grouper, saying they've become a nuisance, although not as bad as the bull sharks swarming around the Gulf.
"Over the past five or six years, they've really made a remarkable comeback," he said.
The wildlife commission, a seven-member board appointed by the governor, rejected calls to immediately reopen fishing, with commissioners saying at their February meeting that they need their scientists to more definitively assess the species' health.
Rodney Barreto, who just stepped down as the commission's chairman, says he hears about the issue all the time, from divers who want the fish protected and fishermen who want a chance to catch them. He said he would agree to reopen fishing, but only if it could be controlled to prevent another decline.
"If the species would support a limited take, I'm supportive of that," he said.
Unfortunately, the scientists are having a difficult time getting a read on the grouper's health without killing any. Traditionally, they would study a fish's abundance by looking at statistics on landings, but since there haven't been any — at least not legally — since 1990, that avenue is closed. They also wanted to learn how long goliath groupers live once they reach reproductive age, an important factor in its ability to reproduce. But that would require examining small calcified structures in their inner ears which could never be removed from a live fish.
"To really know, we'd have to kill a lot of fish," said Luiz Barbieri, a commission biologist. "And this is such a success story, with all that population growth, the last thing we want to do is be killing them."
No one knows for sure where the name jewfish came from, although one popular theory comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which quotes an English traveler in the Caribbean describing the species as one favored by Jews for its conformity to biblical dietary laws. "The Jew-Fish is a very good fish and, I judge, so called by the English because it hath scales and fins, therefore a clean fish, according to Levitical law." The name was changed to goliath grouper in 2001, in what some saw as an example of galloping political correctness.
Byron Maharrey, a lobster diver from Palm Springs in suburban West Palm Beach, said the goliath grouper has been scouring the lobsters from the holes he's going to for years. He used to ignore the goliath grouper ("They're big and easy to take. They're pretty stupid really, and that's one of their problems.") But for the past two years, he finds empty, lifeless holes where he used to find lobster, and every few holes he would see a goliath grouper.
"I kept hitting all these sterile holes," he said. "Now I'm a staunch conservationist, but I just feel that we need to stand our ground and have reasonable recreation."
Many people oppose resuming the catch, particularly divers, saying the goliath grouper is an impressive sight on the reefs, a draw to tourists and a success story.
Off Palm Beach County, for example, from Boynton Beach up to Jupiter, they gather in groups of 50 or 60 to spawn.
"Within the shadow of the condominiums," said Don DeMaria, a Key West diver who chairs a federal committee on snapper and grouper. "There's nowhere else on the planet where you can see anything like that. In a state that has so many problems, to have a spectacular sight like that, I think we should try to hold onto it rather than exploit it."
DeMaria used to spear them off Tampa and bring them down to Key West. "They were a local delicacy with the Conchs," he said. "You'd slice them thin, bread and fry them and it was very good."
But today he says the grouper should be left alone.
"I think the fish is worth far more alive than dead," he said.