Archives for category: Marine Conservation

The Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA), is the international trade association for the recreational scuba diving and snorkeling industry. DEMA supports the continued protection of Goliath Groupers in Florida.

Tom Ingram, DEMA President and CEO, recently wrote a letter to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) regarding their proposal that, if approved, would allow killing the critically endangered Goliath Grouper.

You can attend the FWC workshops, write emails to the FWC Commissioners (commissioners@MyFWC.com), call (850-487-0554) or post your comments here

Today, Tom Ingram is my guest blogger. Here is the letter he sent to FWC, copied to Rick Scott, Florida Governor, Nick Wiley, FWC Executive Director, Bob L. Harris, Esq., attorney in Tallahassee and the DEMA Board of Directors.

August 8, 2017

From: Tom Ingram, President and CEO Diving Equipment and Marketing Association 3750 Convoy Street Suite 310, San Diego, CA 92111

To: Chairman Brian Yablonski Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Farris Bryant Building 620 S. Meridian St., Tallahassee, FL 32399

Dear Commissioner Yablonski:

Having reviewed the “Goliath Grouper Review and Discussion” produced by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) for presentation on February 8, 2017, as well as for Goliath Grouper Workshops slated for August through October 2017, I am writing to express our concerns regarding the possible lifting of the current moratorium on harvesting these animals.

The Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) is the international trade association for the recreational scuba diving and snorkeling industry. DEMA has more than 1,400 business members worldwide, and represents the interests of diving manufacturers, diver training organizations, the diving-related magazines and media, diving retailers and dive travel and dive charter operators. DEMA’s mission is to bring businesses together to grow the diving industry worldwide, and our goals include promoting recreational scuba diving and snorkeling, while protecting the underwater environment.

DEMA is aware of the lead role FWC took in the 2013-2016 stock assessment conducted by the Joint Ad Hoc Council Goliath Grouper Committee. We applaud the FWC for this effort, and we support such periodic stock assessments when they include sound scientific inquiry and input from all user groups affected by any change in the current harvesting status.

As you know, in 2016 the results of this Council’s assessment were rejected by a group of independent scientists for use in management of the stocks of goliath grouper in federal waters, pointing to the fact that, “the results were not deemed suitable primarily because of missing information needed to generate an accurate ‘model’ of the fishery.”

The many challenges to assessing this species, as outlined on February 8, 2017, FWC presentation, point to the need for further study prior to opening this species to a harvest of any kind. Therefore, DEMA favors the following:

1. Maintaining the current harvesting status of the goliath grouper in Florida; that is, harvest and possession should be prohibited.

2. FWC or NOAA (or another appropriate agency or scientific organization) should undertake a more thorough stock assessment of the goliath grouper that satisfies the need for accurate scientific data on stocks of these fish.

3. FWC or NOAA (or another appropriate agency or scientific organization) should conduct additional research on the age of these creatures, such that any future assessment would have more validity.

4. FWC should review its current regulations to determine if protections for goliath grouper could be implemented commensurate with protections afforded to manatees.

DEMA’s position is taken in recognition of FWC’s own list of assessment challenges and the 2016 conclusion that information needed to generate an accurate model of the fishery was missing. Without solid scientific evidence of recovery, it appears that the goliath grouper remains vulnerable to overfishing due to (among several reasons) late maturity, slow growth and is subject to large scale mortality.

As the Commission is also aware, over the last twenty-seven years during which harvesting was prohibited, goliath grouper have become extremely popular hosts to underwater habitats and are mentioned frequently by visiting/tourist divers who greatly enjoy watching these remarkable creatures roam the ocean floor. The goliath grouper’s size, visibility, low birth rate and slow movement seem to trace another of Florida’s truly majestic waterborne creatures, the manatee, a protected species that also has considerable ecotourism value. If harvesting is allowed without verified stock assessments, goliath grouper could easily be thrown back to species extinction.

Goliath WStearns MG111 Edited

Goliath Grouper spawning aggregation. SCUBA divers from all over Florida, the USA and the world pay to dive with these gentle giants in Florida. Photo credit: W. Stearns

In addition to concern regarding the stocks of these fish, DEMA also relies on the opinions of divers and dive-related businesses regarding the current harvesting status of goliath grouper. In a July 2017 DEMA survey of divers and dive professionals, more than 69% indicated their desire to maintain the current moratorium on harvesting the goliath grouper. Among those located in Florida, 64% indicated a desire to maintain the moratorium, while among those traveling to Florida to dive and see the goliath grouper while diving (bringing tourist and tax revenue to the state) the number rose to more than 77%.

With the results of studies included in FWC’s February 8, 2017 presentation indicating high levels of mercury in the flesh of goliath grouper, and with a high economic value among divers, especially those from outside of Florida who are willing to pay $336.00 to see these fish (as compared to a maximum of $79 for fishers to harvest a goliath grouper), it seems most appropriate economically and scientifically to maintain the moratorium on the goliath grouper harvest.

DEMA strongly recommends maintaining the current prohibition on harvesting the goliath grouper.

Thank you for your careful consideration of this issue.

Sincerely,

Tom Ingram President and CEO

cc: Governor Rick Scott

Nick Wiley, Executive Director, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

Bob L. Harris, Esq., Tallahassee

DEMA Board of Directors

 

 

Many SCUBA divers support continued protection of Goliath Groupers in Florida. As an example, I share a letter from Carlos & Allison Estape, avid SCUBA divers from Islamorada, Florida Keys. They are my guest bloggers today. Carlos & Allison wrote to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and attended one of the Goliath Grouper workshops currently underway to gather public opinion on the proposal that, if approved, would allow killing this critically endangered species.

You can attend the workshops, write emails to the FWC Commissioners (commissioners@MyFWC.com), call (850-487-0554) or post your comments here 

Letter to FWC from Carlos & Allison Estape :

Commissioners, our names are Carlos & Allison Estape, we live in Islamorada, Florida and we have personally logged several thousand dives each throughout the Florida Keys since 1978.

First-hand experience

It is a rare sight indeed to nowadays come across a Goliath while SCUBA diving on our reefs. Data from the Reef Environmental & Educational Foundation  data that has been presented to the Commission in the past, show that Goliaths are reported on less than 6% of the nearly 26,000 diver surveys in the Florida Keys since 1993. Many of those reports are of the same fish or fishes found repeatedly on the same sites, Goliaths show great site fidelity as is well known.

Unsupported charges

In the minutes of previous Commission meetings, it has been suggested by anglers that the Goliath grouper is responsible for reduced human take of other game species and lobsters.

My first question to all for consideration is:

If Goliath groupers are to blame for great reductions in other species such as other groupers or lobster then why is it that within the Florida Keys Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs) large numbers of Black grouper and plentiful lobsters can be found? Which of the following two reasons is more plausible:

  • Is it because Goliaths haven’t figured out the Black grouper and lobsters are hiding in the SPAs or
  • Is it because people aren’t allowed to fish or harvest there?

It is my observation that the reason for reduced catches of some game fish and lobsters isn’t that there are too many Goliath groupers.

Human population considerations

Consider this, registered vessels in Monroe County in 1991, the year after the Goliath grouper moratorium on harvest started, totaled about 16,000. In 2016 there were more than 29,000. That’s just Monroe County. In Miami-Dade County there were more than 66,000 registered vessels.

These numbers don’t take into consideration all the vessels brought to Monroe from other parts of the State or outside the State. Between recreational and commercial harvesting we have depleted our game fish stocks so that studies (James A. Bohnsack et al) now show that all but the Yellowtail snapper are below sustainable reproductive rates.

Since 1990 the population of Monroe County has held steady at just under 80,000 people, meanwhile the population of Miami-Dade has increased from 2 million to 2.7 million. The combined population of Monroe/Dade/Broward/Palm Beach has gone from less than 4.1 million to 6.1 million, a 50% growth. The State of Florida has gone from 13.0 to 20.2 million over the same time span, a 55% increase.

Total grouper commercial catch has dropped from 800,000 pounds in 1985 to 200,000 pounds in 2016

What is more probable;

  • Goliaths have been eating more than half a million pounds of other groupers per year, or
  • people have been eating more than half a million more pounds of grouper per year?

Tourism dollars

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary published a socioeconomic factsheet showing that during the 2007-8 tourist season there were 739,000 visitors and residents that participated in diving and snorkeling operations, 85% MORE than the 400,000 that participated in fishing activities. The kicker is that divers spent $470 million in Monroe County that year versus the $274 million spent by fishermen. Divers and snorkelers spent 72% MORE than anglers!

Monroe County Tourist Development Council has spent millions of dollars promoting SCUBA diving along the entire Florida Keys chain including creating the Wreck Trek. These artificial reefs have been shown to have large economic benefits to the local economy, no doubt in large part because on them you can regularly see resident Goliath groupers.

If you allow harvesting of these fish the first to go will likely be those resident Goliaths even though they are in Federal and not State waters, the ones everyone knows are there, the ones people like me and the more than 700,000 other divers that visit the Keys every year hope to see.

While Goliaths show great site fidelity they also come inshore to aggregate. Just off of our island in fifteen feet of water there exists such an aggregation site. The site has 2 or 3 permanent resident Goliaths but that number grows to a dozen or more during August and September. It is highly likely that some of these individuals are the same ones we see offshore on the wrecks. Harvesting them here will deprive the diving community of seeing them elsewhere when they would have moved back to deeper water.

Goliath WStearns Rebreather Edited

Recreational and professional SCUBA divers are strong supporters of Goliath Grouper conservation, and they also support local Florida businesses when visiting to dive with the gentle giants. Photo Credit: Walt Stearns

Enforcement

FWC personnel are understaffed and overworked, I know several of them personally and have the utmost respect for what they do. In my opinion there simply isn’t enough of them to enforce fishing regulations throughout the hundreds of square miles of State waters. How effective will enforcement of the Goliath grouper harvesting be with such limited manpower? I don’t trust the honor system and once the animal has been killed a fine won’t bring it back.

After attending the Key Largo Workshop I’m left with the strong impression that the driving force for opening harvest has nothing to do with science and everything to do with pacifying a loud and vocal group of anglers that won’t be satisfied until all limits and restrictions are removed. This 100-fish per year limit is just throwing them a bone. Without robust science that concludes that a healthy and sustainable breeding stock exists, fishing for this species should remain closed.

If nothing else the harvesting needs to take into account different regions with different Goliath grouper populations, something I still think will be problematic to enforce. The Florida Keys is a very different animal than the Florida West coast and should be treated differently.

In summary:

WE NEED TO LEAVE AS–IS THE STAUS QUO MORATORIUM OF HARVESTING GOLIATH GROUPER TO PREVENT A FURTHER DEGRADATION AND IMBALANCE OF THE FLORIDA KEYS REEF COMMUNITIES until hard scientific evidence tells us otherwise.

OR, IF YOU PREFER, FOR NO OTHER REASON THAN A SOCIO-ECONOMIC ONE FOR THE STATE. GOLIATHS, IT SEEMS, ARE WORTH MORE ALIVE THAN DEAD.

Thank you for your consideration,

Carlos & Allison Estape

Islamorada, Florida

 

Open Letter to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)

July 3, 2017

FWC Commissioners and staff,

I urge FWC to continue the protection of Goliath Grouper and reject the limited take proposal.

Recently, an email from FWC staff on the potential killing of the critically endangered Goliath Grouper confirmed that FWC’s decisions to kill endangered species are not based on science. E-mails to and from FWC and NOAA are public record, so the message and email addresses are shown below accordingly.

FL unscientific letter
There are three key problems with this email.

First, the science denial is stated by the Director of FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI). The FWRI mission statement is “Through effective research and technical knowledge, we provide timely information and guidance to protect, conserve, and manage Florida’s fish and wildlife resources.” The FWRI Director is a scientist who denies science.

Second, the decision to kill or not to kill (harvest) a critically endangered species currently protected (Goliath Grouper) IS a scientific question. Only scientific research can determine whether a species that previously reached commercial extinction has recovered to the point that it can be killed again without bringing the species back into the danger zone. Therefore, prior to even proposing the harvest, a solid scientific argument must be made based on evidence. If the science does not support the harvest, then the proposal to kill should not even exist.

Third, it seems FWC staff has a short memory span, or perhaps information gets lost in an alternate universe. For years, scientists doing research on Goliath Grouper have shared the information with FWC staff (FWC scientists and commissioners), attended workshops, meetings and been available for discussions. All this research shows Goliath Groupers are highly conservation dependent, and cannot withstand exploitation.

On a positive note, FWC disregard for scientific research is finally out in the open. This is not an isolated action. FWC lost all credibility when the Florida black bear hunt was approved in 2015, resulting in the killing of 298 bears in just two days of hunting. The bear hunt was not supported by scientific evidence  and included the killing of bear cubs and mother bears still nursing cubs

It is clear that FWC folded to the pressure of trophy hunting groups, ignoring the best available science. In order to please a handful of people, you cheated all Floridians because wildlife is part of our country’s heritage and ill-planned and unjustified hunts risk the loss of such heritage. The bear hunters must be so proud of killing bear cubs and nursing mothers and FWC was the enabler of such wildlife crime.

Now, you have the critically endangered Goliath Groupers in your crosshairs. The “limited take” proposal under review is not so limited. Basically you would allow, over a 4 year period, the killing of most of the breeding population in Florida for up to 400 breeders 

Every few years, FWC proposes to open a killing season for Goliath Groupers: in 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014 and now 2017. All past proposals were finally rejected in view of the scientific evidence and stakeholder opposition. But this time is different. This time, FWC is openly ignoring science right from the start.

Who is pressuring you for such ill-planned management of an endangered species?

I bet it’s the trophy fishing lobby. They must be itching to kill a magnificent fish, just to take a picture of the dead beast and let it rot in the sun. Because Goliath Groupers have such high levels of methyl mercury they are unsafe for human consumption. You must feel so proud to be enablers again of a new wildlife crime.

But here is the beauty of reality. You can’t block the sun with one finger. You can’t ignore the scientific evidence confirming that Goliath Groupers have not recovered to pre-exploitation levels, and cannot handle fishing pressure without entering again in a spiral towards extinction. For some unknown reason, FWC continues to believe the zombie myth (because it never dies) that Goliath Groupers eat everything in the reef, so they are blamed for decreasing fish and lobster stocks. The reality is that overfishing, not Goliath Groupers, is the reason for the declines. The scientific research is in your files. Read it. Stop denying science.

Finally, to give your ill-inspired killing proposal some degree of fairness, you have organized a series of Goliath Grouper Workshops so people can provide “input on goliath grouper management, including the possibility of a limited harvest in Florida state waters”. The long list of public workshops gives the appearance of a balanced survey design to get people’s input

http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/rulemaking/workshops/

But when the workshop locations are plotted on a map it seems your workshop strategy is biased. Because the people who will be most negatively affected by opening a harvest on Goliath Groupers, are the people who will have the least opportunities to provide face-to-face input.

 

Pins-FL Map FWC Workshops

Only 20 % of the workshops (Lake Worth, Stuart and Davie) can be realistically attended by the SCUBA dive businesses that rely heavily on recreational SCUBA divers who pay big money to see the Goliath Grouper spawning aggregations in East Florida between late August and early October, just when transition between the summer and winter seasons will leave these businesses in the doldrums. Will the comments collected in the workshops have the same weight that the comments collected online? http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/rulemaking/comments/

To summarize, Goliath Groupers are worth more alive than dead

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Opening a fishing season (the “limited take”) will end 27 years of protection in only 4 years. In order to please trophy fishers, you risk cheating all Americans of our national treasure, because nowhere else in the world you can encounter a functional population of Goliath Groupers as in Florida. The take is not supported by scientific research. Do the right thing and stop this madness. Reject the limited take, and continue the ban on Goliath Grouper harvest.

 

The greatest tragedy in the Goliath Grouper story is that the institutions in charge of managing its survival can’t see beyond the “fishery” label.

Open Letter to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)

February 2, 2017

FWC Commissioners,

Recently, at a Facebook post, FWC made the following statement: “all wild animals deserve respect and space”. Once again, FWC is holding a meeting to discuss whether a wild animal deserves respect and space. On February 8, 2017, FWC will review the status of Goliath Grouper and “management strategies that could be considered in the future that could potentially provide additional information about this species in Florida”. This is code for discussing a potential reopening of the fishery. The same discussion was held in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2014, with various killing proposals. All proposals were finally rejected in view of the scientific evidence and stakeholder opposition. As a reminder, Goliath Groupers live in the slow lane, with juvenile females entering the adult population by 8 years old (close to the age of menarche in girls or age of first menstruation), and they have a maximum lifespan beyond 40 years (perhaps 60 to 100 years old). For such a long lived fish, a 2 to 3-year difference between assessments to reopen the fishery is absurd.

The greatest tragedy in the Goliath Grouper story is that the institutions in charge of managing its survival can’t see beyond the “fishery” label.

Fish are wildlife. They are not commodities. They are an integral part of marine and freshwater ecosystems. They are not numbers in stock assessment models but animals with complex life histories. We kill fish to eat them. Sometimes we kill so many of them they go extinct, or almost. We killed so many Goliath Groupers once in Florida and the Southeastern USA they reached commercial extinction. This is the reason for the 1990 state and federal moratorium on harvest.

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Historic photo when the largest Goliath Groupers were killed in Key West, Florida, USA. Photo Credit: Anonymous

It takes 27 years to grow a 27 year old Goliath Grouper. The obvious gets lost in our current economy ruled by quarterly profits. Such short-term approach permeates through FWC when you are pressured by the fishing lobby to “do something” about the Goliaths, and that “something” is usually understood by “we want to kill them again”, with the labels of “scientific take”, “culling”, “selected take” and various creative language.

The reason most frequently used to reopen a recreational take of Goliath Grouper is the perception that Goliath Groupers eat everything and are responsible for declining fish and lobster stocks. This is an urban legend with no connection to reality. Research done by myself and others shows that overfishing, not Goliath Groupers, is the reason for declining fish and lobster stocks. In fact, Goliath Groupers eat predators of juvenile lobsters, allowing more lobsters to grow to legal size and making more lobsters available to fishers.

Sometimes the need to “thin the herd” is also used as a reason to reopen the Goliath Grouper fishery. However, the thinning is already happening because Goliaths are killed for several reasons, from the mundane (red tides, poaching) to the exotic (death by nuclear reactor). In 2005, extensive red tides killed close to 100 adult Goliath Groupers in the west coast of Florida. This is a recovery setback because we lost individuals capable of producing the next generations. In the 2009 and 2010 winters, extreme cold water temperatures in Florida killed 90 % of juvenile Goliath Groupers living in mangrove shorelines. This is another setback because we lost fish that were unable to reproduce at all, and therefore contributed nothing to the recovery. In August 2011, over 75 adult Goliath Groupers were killed at the St. Lucie nuclear power plant in Fort Pierce, Florida. The fish were trapped in the plant’s water intake canal. This is a major manmade disaster. FWC and NOAA promised improved contingency measures, but the intake canal and the danger remains.

Poaching of Goliath Grouper exists. FWC enforcement is aware of it. We also know there’s targeted catch and release, even when it represents a violation of the ongoing moratorium, plus there is “possession” in the sense that Goliaths are held out of the water to take pictures, which eventually show in social media, in sport fishing magazines, etc. (another violation of the moratorium). We don’t know how many of the “released” Goliaths actually survive (after fighting on the line and posing for pictures while drowning).

Lastly, some fishers say they want to kill Goliath Groupers to eat them. Goliaths have such high levels of methyl mercury that they are deemed unsafe for human consumption.

Goliath Grouper spawning aggregation or singles bar

TODAY: Goliath grouper spawning aggregation re-forming in east Florida thanks to a 27-year fishing ban implemented after reaching commercial extinction in the 1980s. Photo Credit: Walt Stearns

What economic benefits can we get from Goliath Groupers? I’m aware these days species must pay forward for their own protection and Goliath Groupers have been doing so quietly and in abundance. Although the species has not recovered to pre-exploitation levels, enough Goliath Groupers are showing up at a few spawning aggregation sites that their presence, and the SCUBA divers that come to visit them, bring a much needed lifesaver to small businesses in Florida, between late August and early October, just when transition between the summer and winter seasons will leave these businesses in the doldrums. Here, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because every individual Goliath Grouper contributes to the underwater spectacle of a spawning aggregation, which is what the scuba divers pay to see. In this sense, every single Goliath Grouper is precious and has value by itself, and brings added value when forming a spawning aggregation.

Goliath Grouper and Sarah

Goliath Grouper meets Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres. Photo Credit: Steve Karm

A live Goliath Grouper is more valuable than a dead one. And living Goliaths will keep forming spawning aggregations and contributing to the Florida economy for as long as they live.

Killing Goliath Groupers is not supported by scientific research. Continuing their protection ensures the livelihoods of Florida businesses and workers because SCUBA divers from all over Florida, the USA and the world come here to see these spectacular gentle giants. Florida is now the only place in the world where we can find Goliath Groupers reliably in any significant numbers.

For all these reasons, I urge the FWC Commission to grant Goliath Groupers wildlife status and designate this species as a non-consumptive fish for ecotourism. Scientists from FWC and other institutions can work together to manage the species for conservation.

Sincerely

Sarah FriasTorres, Ph.D.

Twitter: @GrouperDoc

Blog: https://grouperluna.wordpress.com/

Academia:http://independent.academia.edu/SarahFriasTorres

This is an update of my Citizen Science project “Have You Seen This Fish?” to photo-identify individual Goliath Groupers. You can find more details about this project here.

Since I launched the project on September 5, 2016, recreational scuba divers have shared with me, via Facebook or directly to the project email, 128 photos.

The next phase of the project is to analyze the images.

But I still welcome more photos!

If you are a scuba diver and encounter a Goliath Grouper, you can still add your photo to this citizen science project.

Send me PHOTO, WHEN (date) & WHERE (dive site) to GrouperDoc@gmail.com

You can find easy to follow instructions here. Remember to follow proper Grouper Etiquette when diving with Goliath Groupers as explained here.

Goliath Grouper meets Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres

Grouper Grace is posing with me to participate in the “Have You Seen This Fish?” citizen science project. Copyright: Mark Eakin

Here’s a list of the dedicated scuba divers who sent me their Goliath Grouper photos or shared them through Facebook. The Goliaths thank you for contributing to the science of their survival:

Michelle Ardecki-Stewart, Oren Bernstein, Edward Brecker, John Chapa, Emerald Charters, Max Devine, Alan C. Egan, Lieghann Fisher, Tom Hayward, Cheryl Hillesheim, Nikole Heath, Jeff Joel, Steve Karm, Wayde MacWilliams, Tom Poff, Phil Rudin, Walker’s Dive Charters, Walt Stearns, Cory Walter, Ana Zangroniz

My name is Grouper Goodall. I’m a female Goliath Grouper writing a doctoral dissertation on human and grouper behavior. You can read more about my studies here.

During my research, I’ve discovered humans have an inexplicable need to dive with us. It’s true, we, Goliath Groupers, are a sexy bunch. Look at our burly torpedo-shaped bodies and our relaxed poise just hovering around like meditating yogis. We are adorable.

Now during spawning aggregation season (from August to October), we up the ante from adorable to awesome. After all, we’ve waited a whole year to have sex. So we gather at our singles bars, checking out sexy partners (if we can figure out who is the other sex) and we look our best. We call it courtship.

Goliath Grouper spawning aggregation or singles bar

Grouper Goodall and her buddies at a singles bar checking out sexy partners, if they can figure out who is the other sex. Photo Credit: Walt Stearns

During this critical time, your obsession for making us your dive buddies can easily get out of hand. Or fin. You’ll be surprised to know that in our grouper society, we have a code of polite behavior: a grouper etiquette. It has worked for the last 11 million years since the Miocene epoch. We are not going to change our ways, no matter how many selfie sticks you throw at us.

So, for your own good (and ours) I’ll share with you the basics of grouper etiquette.

Consider this an inter-species wake-up call

1) Avoid aggressive diving

We are irresistible, I know. But it’s rude and outright scary for us to see a diver approaching head on at full speed. I mean, when I see such locomotive divers, I pee my pants (If I could wear pants). We don’t follow Euclidean geometry. The shortest distance between you and me is not a straight line, but a soft curve. You should approach me gently, sideways. You’ll be surprised how close you can get to us. Obey this basic first rule of etiquette or you shall only see our tails.

2) Do not block the exit

Always give us a way out. Do you see where my head is? That means, if I decide to swim away from you in a jiffy, I’ll go towards where my head is pointing. So give me space or I might kick you in the gonads in my panic escape.

3) Do not chase after us

You might remember there was once a Jesus guy who said “let the children come to me”. It’s the same with us. You can get close to us, but for a photo portrait kind of close (when you do the citizen science project) don’t chase after us, of we’ll get the hell out of there. We’ll come up to check you out. Look, we are very curious. We like to pop up and ask you “Hello, What’s up? How’s it hanging? But, if you have a hose hanging in there, tuck it in. Come on, be a neat diver and don’t go around steamrolling the corals and the seabed. Not cool.

4) Do not feed us

We’ve worked out the whole year to look this magnificent for spawning season. We’ve done our yoga, eaten all the right foods. Yes, we might look a bit chubby to you but it’s the perfect kind of fat ass. Do you know how difficult it is to keep our spherical beauty? So don’t show up with hot dogs and who knows what. Feeding us breaks our delicate Rubenesque balance.

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Remember, avoid aggressive diving, no blocking the exit, no chasing after us, and no giving us food.

I wish you a great diving experience. I’ll be watching you.

 

blog-edited-gg-citizen-scienceWhen you SCUBA dive in Florida, you can become a citizen scientist.

Think taking selfies of Goliath Groupers.The Goliaths don’t have opposable thumbs like primates (monkeys, apes, us), so holding a camera underwater (or a cell phone) will be impossible for the groupers. But you can do the selfie for them. And in doing so, you can make a great contribution to my research on Goliath Grouper behavior, and to the advancement of science in general.

There are unique marks on the animal’s face (facial markings) that make individual identification possible. And when you can tell one Goliath Grouper from another, that’s when you can start doing some serious science in animal behavior and conservation.

The master plan is to photo-selfie all Goliath Groupers in Florida. It will take many divers, and many dives. Every single selfie you take will help the research. Even if you suspect you are selfy-ing the same Goliath over and over.

Here’s what to do.

You can take a frontal selfie like this (the grouper is looking straight ahead at you)

Goliath closeup Sarah FriasTorres jpeg

Goliath Grouper frontal selfie. Copyright: Sarah Frias-Torres

or a profile selfie like this (the grouper head is looking to one side). If you can only photograph one side, take the LEFT side (fish looking left). If you can photograph both sides of the same fish, that’s even better!

Goliath Grouper meets Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres

Goliath Grouper profile selfie. Copyright: Mark Eakin

As soon as you can,  write down:

WHEN (date) & WHERE (dive site)

Send me PHOTO, WHEN & WHERE to GrouperDoc@gmail.com

I’ll be posting information on this blog as selfies start to arrive.

Let’s go diving!

Recently, there was a copyright uproar about the ownership of a monkey selfie. That is, who owned the copyright of photographs of Indonesian macaques taken by themselves after borrowing a photographer’s camera. Here’s what one of the monkey selfies looks like:

Monkey selfie. Copyright: the monkey

Monkey selfie. Copyright: the monkey

 

What the media frenzy ignored was how useful a monkey selfie, or a selfie of any animal, is for science. In many cases, there are unique marks on the animal’s face (facial markings) that make individual identification possible. And when you can tell one monkey from another, that’s when you can start doing some serious science in animal behavior and conservation.

Did you ever wonder how a Goliath Grouper selfie would look like? The Goliaths don’t have opposable thumbs like primates (monkeys, apes, us), so holding a camera underwater (or a cell phone) will be impossible for the groupers. But you can do the selfie for them. And in doing so, you can make a great contribution to my research on Goliath Grouper behavior, and to the advancement of science in general.

Here’s what to do.

You can take a frontal selfie like this (the grouper is looking straight ahead at you)

Goliath Grouper frontal selfie. Copyright: Sarah Frias-Torres

Goliath Grouper frontal selfie. Copyright: Sarah Frias-Torres

or a profile selfie like this (the grouper head is looking to one side)

Goliath Grouper profile selfie. Copyright: Mark Eakin

Goliath Grouper profile selfie. Copyright: Mark Eakin

Then, before you forget, you write down the metadata:

DATE (day-month-year you took the selfie)

DEPTH: [in feet or meters]

TIME: [hour if known or roughly am or pm]

DIVE SITE (name of the dive site)

LOCATION: [latitude-longitude or nearest town/city and state]

Gather your selfies and your metadata and send them to me at sfriastorres@gmail.com

The master plan is to photo-selfie all Goliath Groupers in Florida. It will take many divers, and many dives. Every single selfie you take will help the research. Even if you suspect you are selfy-ing the same Goliath over and over.

I’ll be posting information on this blog as selfies start to arrive. We can also keep a friendly competition. You get:

100 grouper points if you send me a frontal and 2 profile selfies (left and right side of head) of the same fish;
75 grouper points if you send me 2 profile selfies (left and right side of head) of the same fish
50 grouper points if you send me a frontal and 1 profile selfie (either left or right) of the same fish
25 grouper points if you send me any frontal, or any profile selfie of any Goliath Grouper

Let’s go diving!

MEMORANDUM

Date: January 8, 2014

To: Joint Council Committee on South Florida Management Issues Members,

South Atlantic Fishery Management Council: Ben Hartig, Michelle Duval, David Cupka, Jessica McCawley, Charlie Phillips; Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council: Doug Boyd, Kevin Anson, Martha Bademan, Roy Williams, John Sanchez;

Joint Council Committee staff: Luiz Barbieri, John Hunt, Bob Mahood, Doug Gregory

and

Ad Hoc Goliath Grouper Joint Council Steering Committee Members: Carrie Simmons, Clay Porch, Luiz Barbieri, David Cupka, Jessica McCawley, John Sanchez, Gregg Waugh, Doug Gregory

From: Sarah Frias-Torres, PhD, Research Collaborator Smithsonian Marine Station, Fort Pierce, Florida

Dear Joint Councils,

As a scientist with an active research program on Goliath Grouper, a SCUBA diver and a Floridian, I’m writing to express my concerns regarding the possibility of lifting the 1990 federal and state moratorium on harvesting Goliath Grouper which is currently under discussion at the Ad Hoc Goliath Grouper Joint Council Steering Committee meeting January 7-9, 2014.

I understand some representatives of the fishing lobby are pressuring you into reopening the fishery for Goliath Grouper. They label the reopening with different names: “scientific take”, “culling”, “selected take” etc.  Such pressure was behind the repeated proposals to reopen the fishery in 2007, 2009 and 2011, all discussed at FWC meetings, and all defeated in view of scientific evidence. At the start of 2014 we face once again demands to reopen the fishery.

It takes 24 years to grow a 24 year old Goliath Grouper. This obvious statement gets lost in our current economy ruled as it is by quarterly profits. The short term approach also permeates through FWC and the Fishery Councils when they are pressured by the fishing lobby to “do something” about the Goliaths, and that “something” is usually understood by “we want to kill them again”

AN URBAN LEGEND

The reason most frequently used to reopen a recreational take of Goliath Grouper is the perception that Goliath Groupers eat everything they encounter, and are responsible for declining fish and lobster stocks. This is an urban legend with no connection to reality.   Solid scientific research (Frias-Torres 2013) demonstrates that overfishing, not Goliath Groupers are responsible for declining fish and lobster stocks. My paper also concludes that a recovering Goliath Grouper population can provide many ecological and socioeconomic benefits: 1) as top-down control on lobster predators: Goliaths eat predators of juvenile lobsters, allowing more lobsters to grow to legal size and making more lobsters available to fishers, 2)  in ecotourism, as a sustained source of income for many small Florida-based diving businesses, restaurants, hotels and tax revenue for the state of Florida, and 3) as potential biocontrol of the invasive Indo-Pacific red lionfish Pterois volitans  on Atlantic reefs, because Goliaths have evolved to feed on venom-spined and poisonous fish.

THE NEED FOR AN IMPROVED ASSESSMENT

The current benchmark to evaluate Goliath Grouper recovery is set at the population level as it existed in 1950, because it assumes at that time the population was almost unfished.  However, studies on historical ecology (Mc Clenachan 2009) demonstrate nearshore population declines well before 1950. Without taking into consideration a true historical baseline, the restoration target for Goliath Grouper is far too low. Since it’s publication the McClenachan (2009) paper has been included in all the FWC documentation related to Goliath Grouper meetings and assessments, and during my previous testimonials at those same meetings, I emphasized the problem with the current benchmark, yet , FWC, NOAA and the Councils insist on using an already reduced population as the restoration target for this species. Until this mistake is corrected, any claims made that the species has reached its recovery target are absurd.

In the 2009 and 2010 winters, we had sustained cold water temperatures in Florida, and those were particularly extensive in mangrove shorelines. Roughly 90 % of the juvenile Goliath Grouper population died from exposure to cold water. This means, we are not going to have any new significant recruitment to the adult population (in the reefs) until 2016 or 2017, when we use the 7 year mark as the time when female Goliaths mature and migrate into the adult population (Bullock et al. 1992) . To help you visualize the magnitude of the Goliath loss, it will be equivalent to having 9 out of 10 children around the world, from newborns to 12 years of age (time of first menstruation for girls), suddenly die. That’s how much we’ve lost in Goliath Groupers in just two winters. This week, a portion of the arctic blast affecting most of the US has arrived to Florida. It remains to be seen whether this winter we are going to experience sustained cold water temperatures and a potential loss of juvenile Goliath Groupers.

In 2010, a group of independent experts rejected the Goliath Grouper stock assessment. I attended the assessment meeting and provided information on my field-based research. One of the major handicaps was the disconnect between the model used as the centerpiece of the assessment, and the real life history of the species as studied by fish ecologists that spend time in the water with the fish itself. If fisheries scientists and fish ecologists are allowed to work together, we could develop a more realistic assessment of the population. We might have to develop new assessment tools, but by doing so, we’ll be opening a new era of improved population assessments not only for Goliath Groupers but for the entire grouper fish family.

Goliath Grouper encounters Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres. Photo Credit: Alan Chung

Goliath Grouper encounters Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres. Photo Credit: Alan Chung

ONGOING REQUESTS FOR CONTINUED PROTECTION

Requests to continue the 1990 federal and state moratorium of Goliath Grouper come from the general public, fishers, scuba divers, and official representatives of the scuba diving industry. Two of the most recent request I’m aware of include:

1) Recreational scuba dive businesses in Florida have completed a signature campaign in support of continued protection of the Goliath Grouper. The campaign secured 2,324 signatures as of today January 8, 2014. The petition is being delivered to Ben Hartig, Chairman, Rep. MaryLynn Magar (FL-82), Governor Rick Scott, Sen. Bill Nelson (FL-1), and Sen. Marco Rubio (FL-2). You can access the Petition site here

http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/save-the-goliath-grouper.fb66?source=s.icn.fb&r_by=9731819

I strongly suggest you access the site and read the comments left by some of the people signing the petition, so you can learn more about the many reasons people want the Goliath Groupers protected.

2) The Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA), the international trade association for the recreational scuba diving and snorkeling industry, with more than 1,400 business members worldwide, has issued an official statement in support of continued protection of Goliath Grouper. The statement was sent to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, and can be viewed here.

http://dema.org/associations/1017/files/From%20DEMA%20re%20Goliath%20Grouper-Gulf%20of%20Mexico%20Fishery%20Management%20Council.pdf

NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL EXPOSURE

Once my paper Frias-Torres (2013) was accepted for publication (in mid 2012), I invested a significant amount of time making the information available to the widest audience. I publicized the results through social media, I attended FWC and Council meetings and testified on the results of the research, and I was also interviewed by the UK-based BBC radio, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ntfvl and by the U.S. National Public Radio (NPR)  http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wqcs/local-wqcs-984578.mp3 . As a result, the Goliath Groupers have acquired national and international exposure.

I urge you to continue the moratorium on Goliath Grouper as recommended by scientific evidence.

Literature Cited

Bullock LH, Murphy MD, Godcharles MF, Mitchell ME. 1992. Age, growth and reproduction of jewfish Epinephelus itajara in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Fishery Bulletin 90: 243-249.

Frias-Torres S. 2013. Should the Critically Endangered Goliath grouper Epinephelus itajara be culled in Florida?. Oryx, 47(1), 88–95

McClenachan L. 2009. Historical declines of goliath grouper populations in South Florida, USA. Endangered Species Research 7: 175–181

The Goliath groupers are on their honeymoon. As a diver, you can use your dive time to do science and actively contribute to the conservation of these gentle giants. All you need to do is count fish. Here’s how.

GOLIATH GROUPER BASICS

Goliath groupers are critically endangered throughout their tropical and subtropical Atlantic ocean distribution. In the United States, a federal and state moratorium on harvest implemented in 1990 has allowed a slow path towards recovery from near extinction. Diving in Florida will allow you to see Goliath groupers during the most spectacular time of the year: spawning season.

Every year, from mid August to early October, Goliath groupers travel from around the state of Florida to congregate at a few sites along the Florida coastline (from north of Miami to the Jupiter area) for the purpose of breeding. These congregations are spawning aggregations. The peak spawning season is September. Goliaths remain for several weeks at the spawning aggregation sites checking each other out, and seeking potential mates with an elaborate courtship. Spawning occurs either at the full moon or the new moon (scientist are still looking into this).

BECOMING A SCIENCE DIVER

You can dive for science if you know how to count fish and you can tell apart a light color fish from a dark color fish.

How to count fish like a scientist.

As you start your dive, count Goliath groupers every 10 minutes. You will count all the Goliaths around you, in a 360 degree field of view. To do so, you turn slowly around on yourself, like a little planet Earth rotating on its axis, counting as you turn, until you reach your starting point. You already learned to count numbers in kindergarden, so I will not elaborate any further. Why is this important? Because knowing how many fish you see at each dive site helps scientists like me to evaluate the health of the population

How to count colorful fish like a scientist.

As males and females seek each other out and engage in courtship they change their “color”, or in this species, their color “tone” from light to dark. There are 4 color phases (check out the photo below)

Normal (N) – typical brown blotches you see year round

Light (L) – The fish body is all white or very light

Dark (D) – the fish body is all black or very dark

Bicolor (B) – The fish has a white head and a dark body

Goliath groupers and their color phases. Photo Credit: Mike Phelan, Alang Chung

Goliath groupers and their color phases. Photo Credit: Mike Phelan, Alang Chung

Each color phase has an “assigned sex”, this means, scientists suspect what sex belongs to each color phase, but the groupers are not willing to provide a sample of their eggs or sperm as they pass by the unsuspecting scientific diver. For now, we think the Normals are males or females not engaged in courtship. Once the Goliaths engage in courtship, the Lights are females, the Darks are males, and the Bicolors are dominant males.

To count the number of Goliath grouper in each color phase, after your first count, you will do another 360 rotation around yourself, this time you are counting how many groupers in each color phase you see. It’s easier to look for the Lights, Darks and Bicolors as they stand out. Everything else will be Normals.  Why is this important? Because knowing how many Goliath groupers are in each color phase helps scientists like me to quantify how active is the spawning aggregation.

How to enter data like a scientist

1 – Bring a dive slate with you, with a pencil. The slate can be any size comfortable to you

2- On the top of the dive slate write DATE, TIME IN , DIVE SITE. You fill in that information after you complete the dive

3- As a reminder to yourself, under the date, time in and dive site lines, write down the color phases and their abbreviations,

N = Normal, L = Light, D = Dark, B = Bicolor

4 – Dive, dive, dive. Every 10 minutes count the number of Goliaths (your first 360 rotation) then count the number in each color phase (your second 360 rotation). Depending on whether you are diving air or nitrox, you will do 2 counts or 3 counts per dive.

Example:

Let’s say in your first rotation you count 10 Goliath groupers. You write down the number 10. On your second rotation you count 2 Lights, and 2 Darks (easier to see among the Normals). So right next to the 10 (your first count) you write 2 L, 2D, 6N.

WHAT TO DO WITH THE DATA YOU COLLECT

Please email me the data sfriastorres@gmail.com

If you have photos or video of Goliath groupers, and you know WHEN and WHERE you took them consider sharing them with me for the purpose of science.

You are welcome to post comments here or email me your questions/comments

Safe diving ! Please, read the diving etiquette below.

Goliath grouper etiquette.003.003

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