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.

When I reached the sandy bottom next to the wreck, I saw probably 20 Goliaths – some looking to be upwards of 300 pounds – hovering with their faces into the current.

As more of my fellow divers arrived, the fish dispersed – some of them seeking refuge in the bowels of the sunken barge.

I found that if I just kneel in the sand without moving, one or more Goliaths would emerge from their refuge and sit about four feet away from me with maws open.

I didn’t think of trying to touch them – not out of fear of being bitten, but because they’d no doubt swim away.

“It’s a privilege diving with the Goliaths,” said Joe Golio of Melbourne who, with wife Iris, had booked spots on the Capt. Sl8ter charterboat Kyalami out of Jupiter Inlet. “Something you can’t see anyplace else and only a certain time of year.”

Dive charter operations such as the Kyalami and others may not have such exclusive, unimpeded access to the Goliath gathering for much longer. Pressure from commercial hook-and-liners, spearfishers, and some recreational anglers is mounting on state and federal fisheries managers to re-open the harvest of Goliaths following a 24-year closure. The fishery was shut down in 1990 after the species was nearly wiped out by overfishing.

Today nearly everyone agrees Goliaths – which are long-lived, slow to mature and produce few young – appear to have recovered. But so far, there has been no way to make certain they can withstand a harvest. And some conservation and dive groups don’t want the fishery re-opened whether recovered or not.

A scientific stock assessment conducted in 2010 flunked peer review because it was considered inconclusive. Now, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in consultation with the Gulf and South Atlantic fishery management councils will take the lead in performing a new stock assessment in 2015. Staffers will brief commissioners at a meeting in Kissimmee in two weeks about what they’ve learned so far about Goliath populations, public attitudes toward the species, and how to proceed in the future.

If the stock assessment – expected to be completed in the spring of 2015 – shows recovery, then commissioners will discuss possible management alternatives at a meeting a year from now. Those might include issuing an annual tag allowing the harvest of one fish at a steep fee with a slot limit aimed at protecting the largest spawners, and banning harvest at known spawning aggregation sites. But no harvest would be allowed without an OK from the feds.

If the assessment falls the other way, then the fishery would remain closed.

Meanwhile, viewing conditions at Goliath congregation areas off Palm Beach County have been less than optimum over the past couple of weeks. The big fish are there, but murky water, rough waves, and a thermocline that has seen ocean temperatures as low as the 60s near the bottom have been tough on would-be Goliath observers.

Still, that didn’t stop vacationers Jim and Sheri Hill of Syracuse, N.Y., from diving on the Kyalami Monday. Sheri, who had never dived in salt water before, was scared of encountering sharks. When she did spot one cruising by, she hyperventilated. But then when nothing untoward happened, she concentrated on looking for the giant groupers.

Said Sheri: “I can’t wait to do it again.”