Archives for posts with tag: human behavior

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


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.


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.


Sarah FriasTorres, Ph.D.

Twitter: @GrouperDoc



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

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

Dissertation Notebook: Day 23

When I told my doctoral adviser, Professor Boomer, that I wanted to focus my dissertation on human behavior, he used the words “you’re crazy” and “good luck” on the same sentence. Professor Boomer is one of the few Elders who survived the Great Massacre. For that reason, he rates humans way below the lowly sea cucumbers. But even Professor Boomer, with his loud voice (he’s the loudest bicolor male I’ve ever heard in a spawning aggregation) could not argue with me that humans are a poorly studied zoological group and deserve the same scientific scrutiny we relish on other species.

Before I could begin with my behavioral observations, I gathered some basic background on humans. As usual, dolphins are a good source of information, but you have to be a bit careful with them. Dolphins, with their know-it-all attitude, will talk to you while at the same time keep playing with a seaweed, or copulating in front of you. There’s no serious academic decorum when it comes to dolphins.

Anyhow, dolphins said humans live on land and breathe air. Those who come into the ocean either stay at the surface, or go down with a big air bubble on their backs. What a weird species, an alien of a different world!.  Of course, dolphins also breathe air, but at least they live in my ocean world, and I can talk to them (if you can bypass the annoying high pitch whistles they use to tell jokes behind my back when they think I can’t hear them). The issue of communicating with humans might be a bit complicated. Dolphins claim they’ve tried to do so for centuries and it seems humans are idiots. I’m not sure if that’s a dolphin euphemism, (dolphins view any non-dolphin species as slightly idiotic ), but I must consider the possibility of conducting a full behavioral study on a species that is, at the very least, mentally impaired. A final limitation is the inability to sex humans in the field. Dolphins claim that, using their sound-based vision, they can tell apart male humans from female humans. But I don’t have such powers, so I’ll have to modify my experimental design accordingly.

Almost a month into my quest for knowledge, I discovered some basic facts about human behavior. Humans are very noisy. I can hear them coming to my reef way before I see them. Some of my colleagues go on hiding right away. As a behavioral scientist, I must remain inconspicuous to avoid disturbing the natural behavior of human visitors, but I don’t have the luxury to flee the site, otherwise, I’ll never get any science done!.

Humans are rude. They don’t follow grouper etiquette, and get right on your face. This is a typical image I see in my daily behavioral expeditions.

To add insult to injury, humans fart constantly. At least, that was my initial impression. I asked the dolphins about that, and after laughing to tears, they explained humans make small bubbles after they breath from the big air bubble on their backs. So what to me sounds like many farts, is actually part of the human breathing process. Humans are indeed weird!. Then the dolphins proceeded to demonstrate the difference between making bubbles, and letting a fart go. And in typical dolphin humor, swam around my reef cave farting all along. Show offs.

Yesterday, I met an interesting human. It was a bit less noisy than the others and it had a gentle disposition. I managed to get close enough for a good photograph. I think this could be Figure 1 for my dissertation.

The quest continues…

Grouper Goodall is a goliath grouper investigating human behavior as the main topic in her doctoral dissertation. Her doctoral adviser is world renowned ocean explorer Professor Boomer, Director of the Elder Council and survivor of the Great Massacre.

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