[Orange Beach, Ala.–]Scuba diving 90 feet deep on the sunken coastal freighter “The LuLu”, I was completely surrounded by a curtain of fish: shimmering minnows; fairly large amberjacks …
Goliath Grouper Diving Season Peaks in South Florida
By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost Staff Writer
[Jupiter, FL–] If you have ever wanted to get up close and personal with schools of fish the size of Smart Cars as they check out the action in their underwater singles bars, now is your best opportunity.
Scores of Goliath grouper weighing hundreds of pounds are gathered at their annual spawning sites on reefs and wrecks in southeast and southwest Florida. They started showing up in August and will likely remain through early to mid-October.
By far the best viewing is on artificial reefs 60 feet and deeper from Boynton Beach to Jupiter in Palm Beach County. On a Sept. 12th dive on the 60-foot-deep MG 111 off Jupiter, Ryan Kobylski– divemaster with Jupiter Dive Center– counted 80 individuals hovering inside and around the wreck.
“This is the hot time,” Kobylski said. “This is when they’re all fired up.”
The large, gentle, mottled-brown fish mostly ignore divers or move away when approached. But if you sit still on the bottom or hover stationary in the middle of the water column, they may swim up to you. When upset or frightened, they emit a sonic boom from deep in their throats. With lots of divers around, the MG 111 often sounds like an underwater bass drum concert.
Scientific tagging data shows Goliaths come from hundreds of miles away to reproduce on southeast Florida wrecks in late summer. Most are gone by mid-October, but a few stick around.
The giant groupers have been protected from all harvest since 1990 after their populations crashed due to overfishing by both hook-and-line and spear guns. Now, after 25 years of closure, stocks have bounced back– prompting some commercial and recreational anglers and spearfishers to call for a resumption of harvest. That won’t happen anytime soon, however, because state and federal fisheries managers don’t expect to complete a new Goliath stock assessment until the middle of 2016. If the numbers show that the fishery has reached a sustainable level, then a limited harvest could be considered.
Over the past decade, some dive operators– especially in Palm Beach County– have come to rely on bountiful numbers of Goliaths for a substantial portion of their summertime income, as tourists travel from all over the world to interact with the huge creatures. Those business owners staunchly oppose lifting the harvest ban.
And, just recently, another potential impediment to a future harvest has come to light: high levels of the heavy metal mercury found in many of the largest Goliaths.
Dr. Chris Koenig, a Florida State University fisheries scientist who’s been studying the species since the 1990s, says mercury levels are so high in fish over four feet long as to weaken and maybe even kill them. And that means people who eat them risk mercury poisoning. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration says no one should consume fish with levels higher than one part per million; Koenig and colleagues have detected up to four parts per million of mercury in many Goliaths they’ve examined.
“Commercial fishing is out of the question and recreational fishing is foolish,” Koenig said. “Why would you want to kill something you couldn’t eat?”
The problem with opening a fishery for smaller Goliaths in the two-to-three-foot range found mostly in shallowEverglades estuaries is removing fish before they’ve had a chance to spawn. Coupled with the massive cold-kill of juvenile Goliaths in early 2010, recovery of the species could suffer serious setbacks.
So for now, the best way to handle Goliaths is to enjoy their company underwater while they’re around and release them quickly and unharmed if you catch them on hook and line.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling, camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.