Florida changes course on harvesting goliath grouper. What it means for fishing

Maggie Martorell/For the Herald
·3 min read

Since 1990, keeping goliath grouper — an aptly named fish that can grow to 800 pounds — has been illegal in Florida.

But there has been years of debate from recreational and commercial anglers that the species has rebounded to the point where the voracious eaters are becoming a nuisance. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued a change of policy this week.

Starting in spring 2023, limited, and highly regulated, harvest of the giant fish will be allowed in state waters only. The restricted hunt will not apply from Martin County south through the Atlantic coast of the Florida Keys, according to the FWC.

“After decades of closure to this fishery, we welcome this opportunity for a highly regulated, limited take of goliath grouper,” FWC Commissioner Robert Spottswood said in a statement. “In addition, the post-harvest data reporting will help guide future management decisions for this species.”

Along with being huge, goliath grouper are slow-growing and slow to reproduce. They also can live for up to three decades. All of this made them susceptible to over-fishing, and they were almost fished out of existence leading up to the state ban 32 years ago.

According to Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory, there are 159 species of grouper occurring worldwide. They are a popular food fish, particularly at Florida restaurants.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved a plan in which the state will issue 200 harvest permit tags to anglers through a random-draw lottery. A maximum of 50 tags to harvest the edible goliath from Everglades National Park waters will be distributed, the FWC announced.

According to the announcement:

  • Tags will cost $150 each for residents and $500 for out-of-state anglers.

  • Harvest is limited to one fish per person per open season with the tag, which is non-transferable. Season will be March 1 through May 31.

  • The fish can only be caught on hook and line.

  • Goliaths will be a “slot” fish, meaning keepers must be between 24 and 36 inches long. This means that the giant eight-footers seen lurking above the ocean floor and shipwrecks are still off limits.

  • Other waters off limits to harvesting are all of the St. Lucie River and its tributaries, the Dry Tortugas National Park and federal waters.

  • After catching the grouper, anglers must report harvest data and submit a fin clip to the state for genetic analysis.

The FWC said it came to its decision on the limited harvest after gathering stakeholder comments since 2017. The dive community continues to be against harvesting goliaths because divers flock to the state for a chance to see them.

In its statement, the FWC said it took that into consideration when crafting the rules of the harvest, and that is why it doesn’t apply to places like the Atlantic coast of the Keys, and why large, mature grouper will be spared.

“Goliath grouper over 36 inches in length will continue to be prohibited from harvest as well as those in heavy dive ecotourism areas,” the announcement reads.

The story was updated to say that only the Atlantic coast of the Florida Keys will not be part of the policy change for harvesting goliath groupers.