Is It Legal to Catch Goliath Grouper Around Florida?
That’s something of a loaded question, since catching goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara) is legal. As long as you don’t take it out of the water and assuming you release it quickly. Keeping one is not legal. Well, not generally — but it can be.
A Quick Goliath Grouper History
Backstory: In the latter part of the last century, goliaths (then widely known as jewfish), were harvested mercilessly around Florida (as elsewhere in their range south to Brazil). Doing so was all too easy. They’re slow moving and easy targets for spear fishers, but also quick to gobble up a large bait with a hook embedded in it, to be winched up on very heavy gear by anglers, sport and commercial alike. But these gentle giants grow slowly and have a low reproductive rate.
By the 1980s, it was clear that goliath stocks had collapsed and were in imminent danger of being beyond recovery. In 1990, the species was placed on the Endangered Species List and given full protection by federal and state law. (In fact, most goliaths inhabit state waters since they typically live near shore in water no more than 150 feet or so.) That meant no harvest of any kind at any time for any size goliath.
As expected, the species began a comeback. Within a few years, they had begun showing up around offshore structure just off the coast and even around bridges in some deeper inlets where they’d been absent. By 2006, goliaths seemed to be everywhere around the state, wherever suitable habitat could be found. Some anglers considered them a nuisance; goliaths weren’t shy about grabbing hooked fish. (With usual coastal tackle, the idea of stopping one was laughable.)
Goliath Grouper Recovered in Florida
At the same time, an industry had developed among nearshore guides who specialized, at least in part, in taking out visitors to tussle with grouper the size of a small automobile. Using appropriately heavy tackle and with good boat-handling tactics, anglers could raise goliaths and bring them boatside, where photos of such behemoths made for great social-media popularity.
Two-thousand and six is mentioned since that was the year that scientists deemed the species recovered, thus ending its endangered species listing. Protections, however, remained in place. Those protections proved to be a good thing in 2010. That winter, a deadly cold snap settled over the state, devastating cold-susceptible marine life — which included juvenile goliaths. The species relies on mangrove estuaries to grow; the fish generally leave inshore estuaries for deeper water at a few pounds. Temperatures in these shallow-water estuaries fell enough to essentially wipe out juvenile goliaths, wiping out several year classes.
Florida’s Goliath Grouper Season
Despite that setback, after some years, goliath stocks recovered. And anglers continued to insist the time had come to once again allow the harvest of goliath grouper, at least on some basis. Calls to do just that built into something of a clamor and, in 2022, the state relented and agreed to open a very limited, heavily restricted sport fishery for goliaths.
If you’re intent on keeping a goliath grouper, you’ll first have to apply for a harvest permit tag. Then you’ll have to be lucky — that is, one of the 200 lucky winners in a random-draw lottery for one of those 200 tags allowing the retention of a single fish. (That’s with hook-and-line only — spearfishers need not apply.)
Next you’ll have to fish when and where allowed for goliath harvest. The open season is March through May in 2023. (At this point, assuming the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allows for a 2024 season, you can apply in the fall of 2023.) As for the where, most state waters are open, except Martin County (Stuart) south to include the Keys (Atlantic side), as well as the St. Lucie River and Dry Tortugas National Park.
Report Your Goliath Harvest to the State
Once you hook your goliath, you’d better have a good tape measure handy. The slot limit for goliaths is 24 to 36 inches. Forget those 400-pound mamas (though you might have trouble getting through them to smaller fish, at times). You’re looking at a fish of 10 to 30 pounds, give or take.
And once you’ve filled out your tag, you’ll have one last step: to report data as requested by the state and submit a fin clip for genetic analysis.
A primary reason for the limited harvest of slot-limit grouper off central and southeast Florida’s Atlantic coast is, in part, governed by economics. Goliaths have become worth big bucks to divers who flock here for face time with these gentle giants, and they pay well for the privilege. Taking a selfie near a fish large enough to dwarf oneself is a rare and long-remembered moment.
Any angler with a tag won’t need to worry about disrupting spawning aggregations. That occurs in late July through September. And occur it does: The Florida coast in the Palm Beach County area, is something of an epicenter where dozens and dozens of giants to 500 pounds and more gather around wrecks and reefs in 100 to 150 feet. You wouldn’t have seen that in the 1970s or 1980s; these major meet-ups reflect the stock-rebuilding success story of Florida’s goliath grouper, thanks to state and federal laws that have protected these slow-growing giants, so vulnerable to hooks and spears, since 1990.