Fishing adventures off the coast of Florida are about to get bigger. A lot bigger. That’s because, for the first time in more than three decades, anglers will be allowed to target one of the biggest fish in the sea – the goliath grouper.
Earlier this week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission unanimously approved a rule change that would allow a limited and highly regulated harvest of the big fish to occur for the first time since 1990.
Modifications to the plan may still be made before its final approval, but as of now, things are in motion for a 3-month season beginning on March 1st and running through the end of May. The season could open as early as 2023.
According to Field & Stream, the plan calls for only 200 grouper fishing permits to be issued to anglers through a lottery system similar to how highly coveted hunting tags are issued. Each person with a permit would be allowed to catch and keep just one fish with a slot limit between 20 and 26 inches.
Goliath grouper can grow up to 8-feet long and tip the scales at more than 800-pounds. The Florida state record for the species was caught in 1961 and weighed 680-pounds.
The species’ enormous size and propensity for gathering in predictable and easily identifiable locations historically made the species susceptible to overfishing. As a result, their numbers began steeply declining in the 1950s, and by the 1980s, a combination of fishing pressure and the decimation of mangrove habitats that juvenile grouper rely on further accelerated the species’ decline.
In 1990, all harvest of the species in both state and federal waters was prohibited in an attempt to save the species. Since then, anglers have been required to release any goliath grouper they accidentally catch immediately.
With fishing opportunities gone for decades, the fish have become a popular ecotourist attraction for scuba divers and charter boats because of their immense size and a high tolerance for humans swimming nearby.
In the 30-years since harvest group was prohibited, their numbers began to climb, and in 2006, the species was removed U.S. federal Species of Special Concern list. In 2018, the International Union For The Conservation Of Nature reclassified the species from “critically endangered” to “vulnerable.”
According to Rodney Barreto, the chairman of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, there is some research value in allowing anglers to keep some of the fish, and data collected could help sustainably manage the fish well into the future.
“I think we are going to learn a lot through the process while continuing to promote continued rebuilding of the population.”
Allowing grouper fishing will also generate even more funds to be poured back into marine conservation efforts. It will cost $10 to enter the lottery to win a grouper fishing permit, and winners will be required to pay a $500 fee. Fishing for the species will also continue to be prohibited in certain protected areas like Palm Beach County, the Atlantic coast of the Florida Keys, and Dry Tortugas National Park.
Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Robert Spottswood is confident this is a step in the right direction for managing the species.
“Conservation is not about closing a resource forever; it’s about closing it as a management measure and giving access back when we can. I believe we are at this point, and it is a small and productive step in the right direction.”
This video from National Geographic puts the gigantic size of the fish into perspective.