Local dive-boat operators have been busy booking trips to dive sites where large schools of goliath groupers can be found. © 2012, John J. Lopinot, www.johnjlopinot.com
By Cheryl Blackerby
Divers from around the world have been booking trips to local reefs to see a fish that’s hard to miss, the giant goliath grouper.
The goliaths are big — up to 8 feet long and 800 pounds — and have been showing up for their annual spawn in groups of 100 or more, giving enthralling underwater shows that have kept dive boats busy.
“They’re all over the place, particularly on the ledges of the reefs and wrecks. We’ve seen a big increase just in the last five years,” said Capt. Tony Coulter, owner of Sun Star Aquatic Services and the dive boat Diversity in Boca Raton. He says his divers see at least a few on most trips to nearby reefs year-round, not just during spawning season from July through October.
The sightings have been even more exciting in the past few years because the big fish were nearly wiped out by overfishing in the 1980s. The goliath grouper is recognized as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which estimate that at least 80 percent of the goliath population was lost.
These gentle giants are easy prey for fishermen because they are creatures of habit and not easily spooked. The goliath is well-known for staying perfectly still, watching curiously as a spear fisherman comes close and takes aim.
All fishing of goliath groupers was banned in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Atlantic by emergency rule in 1990 and prohibited in Caribbean waters in 1991. The groupers have made a slow rebound, making marine biologists cautiously optimistic.
“The fisheries have been closed since 1990, and there’s definitely been a positive effect, although it has been pretty gradual. We have multiple research projects going on to evaluate how they’re doing,” said Angela Collins, fisheries biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, and principal investigator for the Goliath Grouper Cooperative Research Project.
The recovery of the goliaths has been slow due to its long life span and low reproductive rate. But anecdotal reports from divers suggest populations are increasing in U.S. waters, according to the fisheries service report.
“I remember seeing dead ones brought in by fishermen on the docks, and very few on the reefs. And now it’s awesome to see them back on the reefs,” said Lynn Simmons, owner of Splashdown Divers in Boynton Beach. A boat captain with a degree in marine biology, Simmons has been taking divers out to the reefs east of Boynton Beach since 1973 and has witnessed their near-disappearance in the 1980s and their steady recovery.
“It’s hard to describe an 800-pound fish that pretty much owns their piece of the ocean,” she said.
The groupers have been particularly abundant at three wrecks less than a nautical mile offshore due east of Boynton Beach, said Bill McKissock, who owns and runs Dolphin Sun Dive Charters at Sportsman’s Park Marina in Lantana. The 258-foot-long Castor, a Dutch cargo ship, sits in 115 feet of water; the 167-foot Captain Tony, a Dutch freighter, is 85 feet deep; and the 169-foot Budweiser Barge is 95 feet underwater.
“We’re taking trips just for people who want to see the goliath grouper. This (spawning) happens every year from July to October. It’s a very cool event. We had a diver on the boat who has been diving for close to 40 years, and he said he will be putting it on his calendar for next year, it was one of the most amazing things he’s ever seen,” McKissock said.
The goliaths delight divers because the fish seem to be as curious about them as divers are about the fish. “They don’t spook very easily,” McKissock said. “If you weighed 600 or 700 pounds, you wouldn’t, either. They will follow groups of divers to see if you’re doing any spearfishing, and they’ll try to take your lobster or speared fish away from you.”
But the fish can startle divers with loud booms that send vibrations through the water. “It sounds like someone stomping on a deck above you,” said McKissock. “They will also make the loud booms if divers get too close.”
Even though divers are seeing more goliaths, they shouldn’t get too confident about their recovery.
“It is probable that low-level harvest of this species continues by poaching and mortality upon release following accidental capture as a result of barotrauma,” states an IUCN assessment report. “As a result, high uncertainty is associated with any predictions for recovery of the species.”
Goliath grouper researcher Angela Collins gives us the facts about the giant fish:
Goliath groupers can be as long as 8 feet and can weigh more than 800 pounds. The world record for a goliath is 8.2 feet.
They are mottled brown or olive, and they can change color, sometimes blanching and becoming pale.
The oldest grouper validated was 37 years old, but biologists believe they can live into their 50s.
It’s one of the world’s largest fish and is the second-largest grouper species (the largest lives in the Pacific).
The fish spawn from July to October, and will travel as far as 100 miles to their annual spawning area.
They spawn in groups of 100 or more.
They live in the shallow reefs off the east coast of Florida and the southwest coast of Florida, which provide very good nursery habitat with shallow mangrove estuaries. They also live throughout the Caribbean.
The goliath grouper is very approachable, curious and not easily frightened.