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Florida passes new rules on two iconic fish. One's now easier to catch

In this archival photo, people stand and squat next to their catch of giant goliath grouper fish.
Monroe County Public Library
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Goliath grouper were among the prized catches for charter boats, including the Gulfstream captained by Tommy Lones in Key West in the 1950s. Wright Langley Collection.

Florida wildlife managers adopted new rules Thursday that loosen restrictions for one of the state’s most iconic fish and tighten them for another.

As expected, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved a controversial rule for goliath grouper that will allow limited fishing for the first time in 30 years. The giant fish nearly went extinct in the 1980s following decades of heavy fishing on reefs where they hunker down and grow to several hundred pounds or more, invincible to most predators.

Under the rule, up to 200 fish can be caught and kept along the Gulf coast and in Atlantic waters north of Martin County each year. The brief spring season lasts from March to May.

The commission excluded most of southeast Florida and the Dry Tortugas in an attempt to protect grouper that inhabit the state’s ailing reef and which draw divers from around the world. The grouper must be between 24 to 36 inches.

“It's not our job just to take away, it's our job to rebuild,” said Commissioner Robert Spottswood, who represents the Keys. “We have a stock that is rebuilding, and rebuilding in a way that allows a highly regulated limited take.”

keys library goliath slaughter.jpg
Monroe County Public Library
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By the 1980s, the number of goliath groupers had plummeted under heavy fishing, as depicted in this image from 1987. Collection of Don DeMaria.

Commissioners also tightened restrictions on popular dolphin fish, or mahi-mahi, hoping to send a message to federal fishery managers who manage the population that migrates from New England to South America.

Since the 1990s, catch numbers have plummeted. Numbers hit a high of nearly 30 million pounds in 1997 but dropped to just 5 million pounds in 2020.

Under the new rule, anglers in state waters can keep just five dolphin, down from 10. The number for private recreational boats was also halved, from a total of 60 fish to 30 fish.

“For years we've been asking for help to stop the long-lining activities and other things that may or may not be causing this,” Spottswood said. “This is a big fishery that's not just Florida. But whatever is causing this decrease in the abundance of the fishery, fish size, etc., we need to figure it out and we need federal help to do it.”

While the restrictions in dolphin fishing drew little opposition, loosening protections for goliath grouper have drawn fierce criticism. The state began considering the move about five years ago as grumbling grew louder about massive goliaths on reefs gobbling up catches, but kept fishing off-limits.

The rule spared the largest fish, setting a limit that essentially includes only juveniles to reduce the risk to reproductive adults, but the rule is still drawing criticism.

“A 24- to 36-inch Goliath is not desirable, nor has it even reached maturity,” said Meaghan Emory with the Florida Skindivers Association. “Regulations are typically intended to protect these smaller fish to allow them the opportunity to contribute to the spawning population and the genetic diversity of the stock.”

Fishing permits will be awarded by lottery and cost $150 for residents and $500 for non-residents. Only 50 fish can be caught in Everglades National Park, whose waters include Florida Bay and parts of Southwest Florida.

The commission also faced criticism for making the decision without enough information about goliaths. Commissioners say collecting data from anglers will help fill that gap, but scientists say there are better ways to document information.

“There has simply not been an acceptable method proposed to measure any impact of harvest. Neither has there been a thorough economic assessment to estimate the loss of revenue from a thwarted recovery,” said Chris Malinowski, director of research and ocean conservation at the Ocean First Institute and one of a hundred scientists who signed a letter opposing the rule.

Even with protections, Malinowski said the number of goliaths have continued to decline.

“Managing based on assumption and not sound science is not an effective or responsible way to manage wildlife in modern society,” he said. “We know better and frankly, we can do better.”

The new goliath rule is scheduled to go into effect in 2023. The dolphin rule becomes effective May 1.