Archives for posts with tag: fishing down the food web

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 (, 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


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:



Thank you for your consideration,

Carlos & Allison Estape

Islamorada, Florida


Every time I participate in a fisheries meeting in Florida, fishers agree on the need of using “good science” to drive fisheries regulations. As a scientist, I should be thrilled of such comments. However, with a few notable exceptions, it seems to me fishers identify “good science” as the one that supports what they want to do: catching fish. Any science that calls for reduced catch limits and fishing closures is, according to them, “bad science”.

The conflict was painfully illustrated once again at a recent meeting of the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) in Cocoa Beach, Florida. As we worked through the meeting agenda, which included impending closures to fishing in deep water reefs to protect deep water corals as essential fish habitat, an impromptu forum opened up, where commercial and recreational fishers voiced their concerns.

In a textbook example of fishing down the food web, a veteran commercial fisherman complained of regulations set during the last decade, as the populations of the most valued fish species have been going downhill, he had less and less fish to catch, ever switching to smaller species. “ I’ll end up fishing for pinfish !!!” he said.

New fishers who have moved into the business during the last decade, including younger generations texting on their iPhones during the meeting, complained that there’s plenty of grouper and snapper in Florida and regulations should be eased on to allow for more fishing. Such shifting baselines syndrome was not lost in one of the old timers, who shared his memories when he began fishing in Florida, 40 years ago: “Many times mine was the only fishing boat around, and I didn’t have much trouble to find fish” he said.

The combination of fishing down the food web, and the shifting baselines syndrome reminded me of tragic and hilarious PSA from Shifting

Fisherfolk rarely recognize their own impact on the species they exploit. There are mortgages and expensive boats to pay. In many cases, they view cutting back on fishing effort as a luxury they cannot afford.

Ultimately, in a consumer-driven economy, we are all consumers of the products fishermen provide to us. We must educate ourselves on making sustainable seafood choices, such as those provided in Seafood Watch. Our choices will eventually drive sustainable fisheries.

Otherwise, we’ll end up fishing for minnows.

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