When discussing massive creatures in the ocean, sharks, whales, and marlin usually top the list.
There is another larger-than-life fish in the Atlantic ocean called the Goliath grouper. This saltwater fish is the largest of the grouper species.
Larger Goliaths can weigh up to 800 pounds and measure 8 feet long. Before they reach maturity, young Goliath groupers are prey for hammerhead sharks, barracudas, moray eels, and king mackerels.
When they are fully grown, Goliaths have only a few natural predators. Human beings are one of the most devastating threats to Goliath groupers today.
Goliath Grouper Conservation Status
So, are Goliath grouper endangered? The unfortunate answer is yes.
Since the 1980s, the western Goliath grouper population has dropped so low that conservation laws were enacted to help their numbers recover. Today they are protected from harvest in the United States.
Goliath groupers were recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a critically endangered species in 1994. The IUCN reports that Goliaths have experienced a reduction of at least 80% over the last 10 years.
While the Goliath grouper was removed from the NOAA Species of Concern list in 2006, they are still considered a “no-take” species in the U.S.
Why Are Goliath Grouper Endangered?
While they are aptly named for their intimidating size, Goliath groupers are vulnerable to extinction because of overfishing, red tide algae events, and the destruction of their natural habitats.
These unique fish take 5 to 6 years to reach sexual maturity, so it takes a long time for the species to rebound when faced with any threat to their existence.
Goliath groupers were once considered vital commodities for commercial fisheries in the Atlantic. They were also widely targeted by sport and recreational fishers around the world.
Juvenile Goliaths are not safe either. The young fish face the loss of essential mangrove habitats to foster them. These shallow ecosystems provide shelter and plentiful food for baby Goliath groupers.
Human interference, erosion, and sea-level rise are all cutting into the state’s coastal mangroves. This means juvenile Goliaths are being robbed of their precious habitats.
The habitats of mature Goliath groupers are facing catastrophe as well. As adults, these massive groupers tend to live near coral reefs.
In places like Florida, their coral reef habitats are afflicted with Stony coral tissue-loss disease. Coral reefs are also susceptible to damage from El Nino events, tropical storms, and hurricanes.
Humans contribute to the loss of coral habitats through pollution, irresponsible tourism, risky fishing practices, and ocean acidification.
Goliaths are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of overfishing because of their predictable spawning behavior in shallow waters.
Spear fishers find it quite easy to catch Goliath grouper due to their sedentary natures and their limited habitat ranges. Seafood lovers, scuba divers, and trophy anglers from all over the world are eager to catch Goliath groupers in the wild.
Some estimates claim that at least 80 percent of the species were wiped out in just three generations. Due to this overexploitation, Goliath groupers were declared commercially extinct in the late 80s.
Conservation efforts have been effective enough to signal significant recovery in US Goliath grouper populations, but the true extent of these results is still unknown. These positive recovery trends ensured that Goliath grouper are not classified as a species of concern in the United States.
Based on recovery trends throughout the past decade, goliath grouper are no longer classified as a species of concern in U.S. waters.
Even so, a harvest moratorium remains in place because Goliaths are labeled as endangered by the IUCN.
How Can We Help Goliath Grouper Populations?
As mentioned above, harvesting Goliath grouper fish is prohibited in both state and federal waters of the United States.
The survival of the species depends on the continued monitoring of Goliath grouper populations to determine whether more legal protections are required to save these fish.
Goliath grouper are categorized as an umbrella species because their survival ensures the continued survival of other species within their habitat. The presence of Goliath grouper maintains a delicate balance within the ecosystem.
These gentle giants help to enhance the structural complexity of both mangrove habitats and coral reefs. Goliath groupers tend to excavate sediment from around reef bases, which increases the abundance and diversity of other resident species.
If you ever encounter a Goliath grouper in the wild, you must immediately return them alive and unharmed to the water. You can only snap photographs of Goliaths during the act of release, as any photographic evidence should never delay release in any way.
Very large Goliath groupers should remain in the water through the release process. Their skeletons cannot support their massive weight without damage or injury.
While Goliath grouper was once considered a highly prized food fish, refraining from eating these fish helps with conservation efforts and is better for your health.
Scientists have found that Goliaths contain high concentrations of mercury. Ingesting mercury is extremely harmful to humans.
In the past 40 years, there have been many efforts to safeguard Goliath grouper populations in the western Atlantic, but recently there have been calls to roll back these protections and allow the harvesting of these gigantic fish once again.
In October of 2021, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recommended that anglers be allowed to catch and kill up to 200 juvenile Goliaths each year, starting in 2023.
Five months before this recommendation, 90 fisheries scientists from around the globe endorsed a letter recommending that the commission continue the fishing moratorium.
The commission may have released their recommendation based on the misconception that Goliaths present a threat to snapper populations and the fishers that depend on them. In reality, there are more snappers present on reefs where goliaths exist.
Many fishers calling for the end of these conservation efforts believe that Goliath groupers are their top competitors for crustaceans and other food fish in the Atlantic.
Despite these new developments, the protection of Goliath groupers is more important than ever. Saving these giant fish can deliver socio-economic, recreational, and ecological benefits for their natural habitats.