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The greatest tragedy in the Goliath Grouper story is that the institutions in charge of managing its survival can’t see beyond the “fishery” label.

Open Letter to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)

February 2, 2017

FWC Commissioners,

Recently, at a Facebook post, FWC made the following statement: “all wild animals deserve respect and space”. Once again, FWC is holding a meeting to discuss whether a wild animal deserves respect and space. On February 8, 2017, FWC will review the status of Goliath Grouper and “management strategies that could be considered in the future that could potentially provide additional information about this species in Florida”. This is code for discussing a potential reopening of the fishery. The same discussion was held in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2014, with various killing proposals. All proposals were finally rejected in view of the scientific evidence and stakeholder opposition. As a reminder, Goliath Groupers live in the slow lane, with juvenile females entering the adult population by 8 years old (close to the age of menarche in girls or age of first menstruation), and they have a maximum lifespan beyond 40 years (perhaps 60 to 100 years old). For such a long lived fish, a 2 to 3-year difference between assessments to reopen the fishery is absurd.

The greatest tragedy in the Goliath Grouper story is that the institutions in charge of managing its survival can’t see beyond the “fishery” label.

Fish are wildlife. They are not commodities. They are an integral part of marine and freshwater ecosystems. They are not numbers in stock assessment models but animals with complex life histories. We kill fish to eat them. Sometimes we kill so many of them they go extinct, or almost. We killed so many Goliath Groupers once in Florida and the Southeastern USA they reached commercial extinction. This is the reason for the 1990 state and federal moratorium on harvest.

fig-1-jf-historic

Historic photo when the largest Goliath Groupers were killed in Key West, Florida, USA. Photo Credit: Anonymous

It takes 27 years to grow a 27 year old Goliath Grouper. The obvious gets lost in our current economy ruled by quarterly profits. Such short-term approach permeates through FWC when you are pressured by the fishing lobby to “do something” about the Goliaths, and that “something” is usually understood by “we want to kill them again”, with the labels of “scientific take”, “culling”, “selected take” and various creative language.

The reason most frequently used to reopen a recreational take of Goliath Grouper is the perception that Goliath Groupers eat everything and are responsible for declining fish and lobster stocks. This is an urban legend with no connection to reality. Research done by myself and others shows that overfishing, not Goliath Groupers, is the reason for declining fish and lobster stocks. In fact, Goliath Groupers eat predators of juvenile lobsters, allowing more lobsters to grow to legal size and making more lobsters available to fishers.

Sometimes the need to “thin the herd” is also used as a reason to reopen the Goliath Grouper fishery. However, the thinning is already happening because Goliaths are killed for several reasons, from the mundane (red tides, poaching) to the exotic (death by nuclear reactor). In 2005, extensive red tides killed close to 100 adult Goliath Groupers in the west coast of Florida. This is a recovery setback because we lost individuals capable of producing the next generations. In the 2009 and 2010 winters, extreme cold water temperatures in Florida killed 90 % of juvenile Goliath Groupers living in mangrove shorelines. This is another setback because we lost fish that were unable to reproduce at all, and therefore contributed nothing to the recovery. In August 2011, over 75 adult Goliath Groupers were killed at the St. Lucie nuclear power plant in Fort Pierce, Florida. The fish were trapped in the plant’s water intake canal. This is a major manmade disaster. FWC and NOAA promised improved contingency measures, but the intake canal and the danger remains.

Poaching of Goliath Grouper exists. FWC enforcement is aware of it. We also know there’s targeted catch and release, even when it represents a violation of the ongoing moratorium, plus there is “possession” in the sense that Goliaths are held out of the water to take pictures, which eventually show in social media, in sport fishing magazines, etc. (another violation of the moratorium). We don’t know how many of the “released” Goliaths actually survive (after fighting on the line and posing for pictures while drowning).

Lastly, some fishers say they want to kill Goliath Groupers to eat them. Goliaths have such high levels of methyl mercury that they are deemed unsafe for human consumption.

Goliath Grouper spawning aggregation or singles bar

TODAY: Goliath grouper spawning aggregation re-forming in east Florida thanks to a 27-year fishing ban implemented after reaching commercial extinction in the 1980s. Photo Credit: Walt Stearns

What economic benefits can we get from Goliath Groupers? I’m aware these days species must pay forward for their own protection and Goliath Groupers have been doing so quietly and in abundance. Although the species has not recovered to pre-exploitation levels, enough Goliath Groupers are showing up at a few spawning aggregation sites that their presence, and the SCUBA divers that come to visit them, bring a much needed lifesaver to small businesses in Florida, between late August and early October, just when transition between the summer and winter seasons will leave these businesses in the doldrums. Here, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because every individual Goliath Grouper contributes to the underwater spectacle of a spawning aggregation, which is what the scuba divers pay to see. In this sense, every single Goliath Grouper is precious and has value by itself, and brings added value when forming a spawning aggregation.

Goliath Grouper and Sarah

Goliath Grouper meets Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres. Photo Credit: Steve Karm

A live Goliath Grouper is more valuable than a dead one. And living Goliaths will keep forming spawning aggregations and contributing to the Florida economy for as long as they live.

Killing Goliath Groupers is not supported by scientific research. Continuing their protection ensures the livelihoods of Florida businesses and workers because SCUBA divers from all over Florida, the USA and the world come here to see these spectacular gentle giants. Florida is now the only place in the world where we can find Goliath Groupers reliably in any significant numbers.

For all these reasons, I urge the FWC Commission to grant Goliath Groupers wildlife status and designate this species as a non-consumptive fish for ecotourism. Scientists from FWC and other institutions can work together to manage the species for conservation.

Sincerely

Sarah FriasTorres, Ph.D.

Twitter: @GrouperDoc

Blog: https://grouperluna.wordpress.com/

Academia:http://independent.academia.edu/SarahFriasTorres

This year, the critically endangered Goliath grouper is once again under review by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). On the table, the possibility of opening killing season for this fragile species.

Learn the facts from my recent peer reviewed scientific manuscript published in Oryx, the International Journal of Conservation.

Click here for a FREE pdf download

Goliath Grouper meets Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres. Photo Credit: Steve Karm

Goliath Grouper meets Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres. Photo Credit: Steve Karm

Briefly, Goliath groupers are not to blame for declining lobster and snapper stocks in Florida, one of the main reasons behind requests to reopen the fishery.

In my paper titled “Should the Critically Endangered Goliath grouper Epinephelus itajara be culled in Florida”, I analyzed fisheries landing data since the 1950s, diver based surveys and published dietary studies. I concluded that :

1) Goliath groupers eat invertebrates (worms, molluscs and crustaceans) and poisonous fish, not snappers and other groupers. Surprisingly, many of the prey consumed by goliath groupers are in turn predators of juvenile spiny lobster. Hence, goliath groupers are a fishers’ best friend, because through top-down predator control, goliaths could allow more juvenile lobsters to grow and become available to fishers.

2) The slow recovery of the Goliath grouper population in Florida is not the cause for declining lobster and snapper stocks in Florida. Instead, overfishing is the main cause.

3) A thriving Goliath grouper population could provide additional socio-economic benefits in ecotourism, and as a potential biocontrol agent for the invasive lionfish.

Goliath groupers are a national treasure. Florida is the only place in the world where we can encounter these gentle giants, from juveniles to adults. Florida also contains 99 % of the spawning aggregation sites known worldwide. With this study in hand, we now have a strong argument to continue protection of the Goliath grouper and dismiss any claims that the Goliaths are destroying valuable stocks of lobster, snapper and other groupers.

Related articles:

One-quarter of Grouper species are being fished to extinction

Five common myths about Goliath grouper (An outreach guide prepared by Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres)

Dissertation Notebook: Day 23

When I told my doctoral adviser, Professor Boomer, that I wanted to focus my dissertation on human behavior, he used the words “you’re crazy” and “good luck” on the same sentence. Professor Boomer is one of the few Elders who survived the Great Massacre. For that reason, he rates humans way below the lowly sea cucumbers. But even Professor Boomer, with his loud voice (he’s the loudest bicolor male I’ve ever heard in a spawning aggregation) could not argue with me that humans are a poorly studied zoological group and deserve the same scientific scrutiny we relish on other species.

Before I could begin with my behavioral observations, I gathered some basic background on humans. As usual, dolphins are a good source of information, but you have to be a bit careful with them. Dolphins, with their know-it-all attitude, will talk to you while at the same time keep playing with a seaweed, or copulating in front of you. There’s no serious academic decorum when it comes to dolphins.

Anyhow, dolphins said humans live on land and breathe air. Those who come into the ocean either stay at the surface, or go down with a big air bubble on their backs. What a weird species, an alien of a different world!.  Of course, dolphins also breathe air, but at least they live in my ocean world, and I can talk to them (if you can bypass the annoying high pitch whistles they use to tell jokes behind my back when they think I can’t hear them). The issue of communicating with humans might be a bit complicated. Dolphins claim they’ve tried to do so for centuries and it seems humans are idiots. I’m not sure if that’s a dolphin euphemism, (dolphins view any non-dolphin species as slightly idiotic ), but I must consider the possibility of conducting a full behavioral study on a species that is, at the very least, mentally impaired. A final limitation is the inability to sex humans in the field. Dolphins claim that, using their sound-based vision, they can tell apart male humans from female humans. But I don’t have such powers, so I’ll have to modify my experimental design accordingly.

Almost a month into my quest for knowledge, I discovered some basic facts about human behavior. Humans are very noisy. I can hear them coming to my reef way before I see them. Some of my colleagues go on hiding right away. As a behavioral scientist, I must remain inconspicuous to avoid disturbing the natural behavior of human visitors, but I don’t have the luxury to flee the site, otherwise, I’ll never get any science done!.

Humans are rude. They don’t follow grouper etiquette, and get right on your face. This is a typical image I see in my daily behavioral expeditions.

To add insult to injury, humans fart constantly. At least, that was my initial impression. I asked the dolphins about that, and after laughing to tears, they explained humans make small bubbles after they breath from the big air bubble on their backs. So what to me sounds like many farts, is actually part of the human breathing process. Humans are indeed weird!. Then the dolphins proceeded to demonstrate the difference between making bubbles, and letting a fart go. And in typical dolphin humor, swam around my reef cave farting all along. Show offs.

Yesterday, I met an interesting human. It was a bit less noisy than the others and it had a gentle disposition. I managed to get close enough for a good photograph. I think this could be Figure 1 for my dissertation.

The quest continues…

Grouper Goodall is a goliath grouper investigating human behavior as the main topic in her doctoral dissertation. Her doctoral adviser is world renowned ocean explorer Professor Boomer, Director of the Elder Council and survivor of the Great Massacre.

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