As early as next year, Florida might once again allow anglers to slay the mighty goliath grouper, as long as doing so won't make the species go belly up for good in Florida waters.
On Wednesday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission directed staff to gather input on how a limited harvest of the species or other future management of goliath grouper might work, for consideration at its September or December meeting, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
"When we talk about going out there and taking some of these fish ... Will we have consensus by everyone that this is good information?" Commissioner Richard Hanas asked fellow commissioners. "We keep pushing this thing down the road."
FWC biologists said allowing some limited catch and kill would help answer key questions about the fish, such as whether, like other grouper, they can "genderbend," changing from males to females as they age, as some other types of groupers do.
Some divers and fishermen said the mammoth fish is hogging prized crabs, lobsters and fish — sometimes snatching catches right off fishing lines. Ecologists counter that goliath grouper still face way too many threats to allow killing them.
Goliath grouper have been off limits to harvest from state and federal waters off the Southeastern United States since 1990.
On Wednesday, FWC staff outlined ideas for how the state could conduct a random draw to select fishermen who would be allowed to keep goliaths, paying a fee of up to $300, which could go toward researching the species.
Selected fishermen would be allowed one goliath grouper per person per year. FWC could issue 100 tags per year for four years, FWC staff said. Anglers would be allowed to keep a 47- to 67-inch goliath grouper, to prevent killing the largest reproducers or exposing people to the higher levels of mercury in the meat of goliaths larger than 67 inches.
But even a 47- to 67-inch goliath grouper might have issues.
"That size fish would have mercury levels in it that are of concern," Gil McRae, director of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, told commissioners Wednesday. "The frequency of consumption would likely have to be limited."
Participants would only be able to fish outside key goliath grouper spawning areas, and not during spawning months (July through September). Only hook-and-line gear would be allowed, and there would be no commercial harvest or sale of the fish.
FWC would hold a series of public meetings to get public feedback before moving forward with any such goliath harvest. Staff will bring a draft rule for the Commission's consideration in September or December and a any regulatory changes likely wouldn't go into effect until 2018, at the earliest.
Biologists said they need to learn more about the goliath's life cycle, and how much harm past commercial fishing inflicted on the fish. Scientists also warned that long-term loss of the mangroves — crucial habitat for young goliaths — makes it especially difficult to predict the fish's future.
Ed Walker, a Tarpon Springs fishing guide, said FWC should allow some limited harvest to fill the data gaps.
"Too often with this particular species, politics stands in the way of science," Walker said.
Years of commercial divers overfishing them almost did the goliath in before the 1990 ban. But fishermen said this top predator has bounced back with a vengeance.
FWC staff recently completed a new assessment of the goliath group's status, using data through 2014.
While those results are highly uncertain, the study showed goliath numbers in South Florida have greatly increased since 1990. Scientific peer reviewers rejected the results for use in management of the fish federal waters, because of data limitations and signs the fish's recovery outside South Florida hasn't likely been achieved.
"They are a majestic thing to be around, for sure," said Brett Fitzgerald, executive director of the Snook and Gamefish Foundation in Palm Beach County. "If the science says it can handle it, then we're definitely for it."