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Population Recovery of 800-Pound Groupers Not Entirely Welcome

Nov 28, 2016 05:11 AM EST

After many years of a fishing ban in the U.S. on this endangered species, the goliath grouper population is recovering as sports fishermen and charter boat operators in the Keys report that the 800-pound fish has been causing big trouble according to National Geographic.

Fished to near-extinction in its western north Atlantic habitat by 1990, the goliath grouper was listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Goliath groupers, long-lived fish that could reach 40 years old, can grow up to eight feet in length.

"There are a lot of spots we don't go to anymore because you won't catch anything," said Brice Barr, a charter boat skipper and president of the Key West Charter Fishermen's Association. "The goliaths will catch every single fish that you hook. They hear the sound of our boats and that's the dinner bell. They know they are going to get fed."

Groupers are also blamed for the Florida reef's dwindling snapper and smaller grouper stock, leading fisherman to petition for the fishing ban to be lifted. "They're not selective in what they eat," Barr continued. "If you ask most fishermen, they say we need to get rid of the goliath. These top predators are becoming so protected, they are starting to prey more and more on the rest of the fish."

Marine experts, however, disagree with the fishing and boating community's opinion. "People make up all kinds of reasons why the fish must be destroyed," said Chris Koenig, a retired University of Florida marine biologist who has studied goliaths for decades. "This is a native species. They were part of the natural environment. They have been here for millions of years, much longer than we have."

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has conducted three population counts, in 2004, 2010, and 2015 in an effort to determine if the grouper has recovered enough to lift the fishing ban. Despite an improvement in population size, none of the counts have persuaded officials to change the current regulations.

"We don't really know how low the population got right before the closure," stated Amanda Nalley, the commission's spokesperson. "We estimate that it probably we below five percent of its original size-a very, very low level."

Koenig believes that ecotourism that attracts divers and tourists to swim with the goliath groupers would be the best alternative for the species. "Nowhere else in the world can you swim up to a fish that is the size of a small Volkswagen and pet it on the face and see about 30 of them around you," he said. "That is a thrilling thing."

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