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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

 

 

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

Slide1Slide2

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.

fig-1-jf-historic

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

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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