Fishery managers will soon be surveying anglers, divers and conservationists for their opinion on possibly changing the law to allow fishermen to keep Goliath grouper they catch.
It's legal now to catch Goliath grouper, but they must be released. For the past several years, the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Fishery Management councils and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) have discussed allowing the harvest of the fish, as the species' population has increased.
Some anglers have called on the councils to allow at least a limited recreational take.
Scientists from the three agencies met Tuesday in St. Petersburg to discuss future management of Goliath grouper and a survey to gauge what the dive, fishing and conservation community want regarding the fishery.
University of Florida professor and researcher Kai Lorenzen is developing the survey and said he will make it available to various dive and fishing groups later this year. It will be posted online and sent to those with fishing licenses and to various dive groups and fishing organizations statewide, Lorenzen said.
He said he expects to have the survey completed and posted online by the end of April. Also, the fishing councils will hold a workshop on the issue in May.
"There will be multiple ways for people to be heard," Lorenzen said.
Fishery managers are struggling with the decision because of a lack of information about the species.
Anecdotal information and limited research did show an increase in the population, but stock assessment information has been limited because of the ban on keeping Goliath groupers. The species suffered a major setback in a 2010 cold snap that killed thousands of juvenile Goliath grouper.
State and federal officials worked with a "catch-free" model in 2010, but not enough data was collected to make the study scientifically valid, FWC research biologist Angela Collins said.
She collected growth and age data from about 20 Goliath groupers killed in the cold snap.
"We are making major inroads," Collins said.
The cold snap killed juveniles in Florida Bay and other mangrove habitats off Florida, she said, which set back the rebounding population by at least five years. Researchers believe most Goliath groupers 5 years old and under died.
Florida State University professor and research scientist Chris Koenig argued the cold snap has made it impossible to open up the fishery now. The earliest fishery managers should consider any change would be 2015, and the catch should only be for recreational harvest, not commercial, he said.
"Any plan to allow harvest should be scientifically motivated, not politically motivated," Koenig said.
Collins and Koenig have been tagging Goliath groupers on both the east and west coasts of Florida in an effort to gain population, spawning and migration data. One fish tagged off Palm Beach County traveled 300 miles to spawn, Koenig said.
He has been working with Lower Keys fisherman Don DeMaria on tagging Goliath grouper off the Keys, the two said.
Koenig was among a group of researchers in the Keys on Thursday and Friday to discuss the impact of global climate change on Goliath grouper and other Keys fish species.