Goliath groupers can be as large as a refrigerator, weigh 800 pounds, and are found prowling near Florida's coral reefs. Their large size makes them nearly fearless and easy prey for fishermen and divers with spearguns.
Felicia Coleman, a marine biologist and former director of Florida State University's Coastal and Marine Laboratory calls it "a big damn fish." Her husband, marine biologist Chris Koenig, says some they've studied have been 7 1/2 feet long.
The massive fish have been protected since 1990, after they were nearly wiped out. But now, Florida is proposing allowing the first catch of goliath groupers in more than three decades.
Coleman and Koenig are retired from Florida State University, but they're very much engaged in the discussions being held by Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on whether to allow fishermen to once again begin taking goliath groupers. They've spent more than 20 years studying goliath groupers in Florida, Brazil and French Guyana.
"What we see is a population that is just teetering on the edge," Koenig says.
Next month, the commission will vote on a proposal to allow 200 goliaths to be harvested each year with permits awarded through a lottery. Coleman and Koenig oppose any move to reopen goliath groupers to fishing, even with strict limits. They're joined by other scientists, environmental organizations and dive groups who say the species should continue to be protected.
Don DeMaria is opposed to lifting the fishing ban. He's a commercial fisherman who in the 1970s used to spearfish for goliath groupers on reefs in the Gulf.
"They would have maybe in excess of 100 goliaths on them in the spawning season," he says. "And as more and more people got involved in it, I saw those aggregations go down to, in some instances one fish."
After seeing what was happening to the population, DeMaria became an advocate for goliath groupers.
"I'm still a fisherman," he says. "You realize it's a slow-growing, long-lived fish and you can't harvest it at that level. And in the case of goliaths, I just don't see how it can be harvested at any level at all, especially when the stock is declining."
After the ban on taking goliaths was imposed, the population began coming back. But in recent years, although the number of young goliaths has increased, Coleman says, the adult population has actually declined.
"When you're looking at population recovery," she says, "the important thing is what is the size of the reproductive population, that is the adults. And if those aren't increasing, which they are not, then you're not recovered."
Coleman says other factors — cold snaps that wiped out juvenile populations, declining habitat and poaching — have continued to take a toll on goliath groupers.
For years, recreational fishermen and women, using tackle or spearguns, have pushed to lift the ban on taking goliaths. They complain that the big fish steal their catch and eat all the other fish on the reef. Dick Kempton with the St. Pete Underwater Club, a spearfishing group, spoke at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting in May.
"You can't dive a range finder or a wreck in the bay or a channel marker that hasn't got one, two or three resident giants living there," he told commissioners. "They eat everything that comes by."
Scientists dispute that and say studies show goliaths mostly eat crabs and some slow-moving bottom dwelling fish. Meaghan Emory with the Florida Skin Divers Association points out that fishing is allowed of many other species that have populations well below historical levels.
"With these increases we've been seeing in recent years on both natural and artificial reefs, we think it's time to have this conversation," she says.
Another concern is that goliath groupers have some of the highest mercury levels of any commercially important fish. Emory says it should be up to individuals, not the government, to weigh the health risks of consuming goliaths they catch. For many, she says, spearfishing is a trophy sport, "the opportunity to be able to interact with that animal, and capture and then actually eat and enjoy and share your catch. ... It's a good feeling we share across the community."
Although they want the ban on taking goliaths lifted, fishing groups aren't happy with the limited harvest proposed by Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Permits would cost $500 and only juvenile goliaths under 36 inches could be taken — too small for anyone to consider it a trophy.