FWC Considers Lifting Jewfish Ban

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FWC Considers Lifting Jewfish Ban

The last time recreational anglers or commercial fishermen could legally harvest a Goliath grouper, the species was still called a jewfish.

That was more than 20 years ago, before a complete ban on harvesting the large and lumbering fish was declared out of fears the population was being overfished to extinction.

Today in Apalachicola, staff with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will update the agency's board on the latest population estimates for Goliath grouper, and ask if the fishery managers want to move toward allowing some harvest.

"Since they took away all our other grouper, it would be nice if they allowed us to catch one or two," said Key West charter captain Andy Griffiths.

Fishermen, particularly in Southwest Florida, have urged the FWC to allow harvest of Goliath grouper, which they contend have rebounded to the point where the voracious predator that can weigh more than 400 pounds and threaten other fish populations.

"They've overrun every artificial reef we have," said Larry Iacofano, captain of the Workin On It from Fort Myers.

"It's unbelievable, the amount of fish I've seen [Goliath grouper] eat," Iacofano said. "I think by now, we should be able to harvest them on a limited basis."

In an FWC presentation to be presented at today's meeting, state staff says the available information indicate that Goliath grouper numbers have increased, possibly to the point where the population can be considered "recovered."

However, the staff cautions that the only available stock estimates were rejected by a scientific review panel as inadequate for confirmation -- in part because no one has been able to take a Goliath grouper since 1990. FWC staff acknowledged the science is not conclusive and recommends caution.

"While a conclusive quantitative assessment is unavailable, data suggest Goliath grouper are abundant and might be recovered," one summary says. "However, experience [and] history indicates we need to be extremely careful managing this stock, [which is] highly vulnerable to overfishing."

Marine scientist Chris Koenig, a Florida State University reef ecologist, said Tuesday, "The recent [Southeast Data Assessment and Review] assessment spearheaded by FWC was rejected by outside reviewers, so it is not valid and should not be used in any capacity."

Griffiths said he catches and releases a small Goliath grouper in the 20-pound range "just about every time we fish the mangroves for snapper." On extended trips to the Dry Tortugas, he said, "we catch at least one every trip."

Griffiths suggested a limited harvest, possibly involving a tag similar to the $50-per-fish license to take tarpon.

During the summer months off Southwest Florida, Iacofano said, Goliath grouper "attack [fishing] lines, so there's only about a 30-percent ratio of getting a fish to the boat when there's a Goliath grouper around. These [grouper] weigh from 200 to 300 pounds, and will follow the hook right to the boat."

A limited state survey in 2009 indicated about 71 percent of the responding charter captains want to harvest Goliath grouper, while half the responding dive operators do not.

Dan Dawson, owner of Horizon Divers in Key Largo, said a live Goliath grouper is worth more to the tourism industry than a dead one.

"There is nothing like seeing a 400-pound Goliath grouper swimming next to you, knowing something that big doesn't want to harm you," Dawson said.

"I don't think the population has come back to where it should be," Dawson said. "It's not like we see one on every dive. We see them mostly on the deeper wrecks, but not really on the reefs."

The FWC board will be asked today if it wants staff to draft rules that could allow some Goliath grouper harvest, on a limited or widespread basis. Final action would be several months away at the earliest.

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