The goliath grouper, the monster reef fish that can grow to 800 pounds and nearly disappeared in the 1970s, is off-limits for now.
On Thursday, Florida wildlife commissioners refused to lift a nearly two-decade ban on harvesting the fish, citing continued uncertainty about the remaining numbers and bowing to the demands of divers and scientists, who packed a meeting and led an online petition that drew nearly 60,000 signatures. But commissioners, who asked staff scientists to dig deeper and come back with another report by the end of the year, warned that if numbers show the fish have recovered, fishing will resume.
"The fact we’re even having this discussion means we’ve been successful," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission chair Bo Rivard.
If Florida were to expand its catch and release rule to allow kills as well, it would be the first and only state in the U.S.
The goliath grouper once inhabited reefs from Florida to Brazil. Curious and generally fearless, they were easy targets for anglers and spear fishermen, especially when they gathered in large numbers in July and August to mate. But pressure from fishing and shrinking mangroves that provide nurseries for juvenile fish drove down numbers dramatically, leaving reefs largely empty. In Florida, recurring red tides also likely took a toll.
After the ban in 1990, the fish began to bounce back, but scientists believe Florida's record 2010 freeze likely sent numbers downward again.
Anglers, however, have increasingly complained that the voracious fish are taking over reefs and gobbling up their catches.
In their report Thursday, scientists said they found no evidence of that and could also not provide an accurate count. Stock assessments in 2004, 2010 and again in 2016 have all failed to pass peer reviews. A survey FWC conducted in the Keys and Dry Tortugas found just a 2 and 4.5 percent increase.
Scientists also doubted the idea that the slow-moving fish would run down an angler's catch and said stomach contents show the fish eat baitfish or crustaceans.
"It’s not a fish that’s going to put in a lot of work to catch its prey," said Gil McRae, director of the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
They also said lobster counts have remained stable, indicating that the fish are not affecting the popular, and lucrative, crustacean.
The controversy over whether to allow harvesting has divided some anglers and divers, who consider the gentle goliath a mascot for the reefs. On Thursday, about 60 speakers, nearly all divers and many wearing Save the Goliath T-shirts handed out by the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association, criticized the move as an attempt to appease anglers.
"You’re awarding a trophy fish to essentially a lazy hunter," said Miami diver James Woodard.
"We don’t have a 'Save the Goliath Grouper' club. Maybe we’ll start that today," said DEMA lobbyist Bob Harris. "Goliath grouper doesn’t have a license plate. Maybe they should."
Scientists at the University of Miami and Florida State University also said ongoing research could influence a change in management and urged commissioners to hold off. UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science fishery scientist Bill Harford and Nova geneticist Andrea Bernard said they are working on building a statistical model, similar to methods used to assess bluefin tuna, that can account for gaps in catch history caused by the fishing moratorium and provide an accurate count for adult fish in Florida.
FSU researcher Chris Malinowski and ecologist Chris Koenig also warned that mercury counts collected by the FWC may be inaccurate. The data relied on juvenile fish, which Malinowksi said don't reflect the higher amount in older adult fish.
"If the value of the fish is in eco-tourism, why are we even considering killing? There’s already catch and release," Koenig said. "Why kill it? You can't eat it. I suggest we label this a success story for Florida that is now earning revenue."
Leaving the door open for a harvest left many at the meeting disappointed.
"People got us into this problem and if the fishing opens back up, we'll likely be back in this position," said Ellie Foder, a sophomore environmental studies major at Eckerd College who left campus at 3:30 a.m. Thursday with her dive club, the Scubi Jews, and campus rabbi, Ed Rosenthal, to make the morning meeting.
When the harvest comes back up, Foder said, the Scubi Jews will definitely be back.