Goliath grouper were once so overfished in the southeastern United States, they were considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Today, the goliath grouper fishery is closed to harvest throughout the southeast region of the United States, as well as the U.S. Caribbean.
About the Species
The goliath groper, Epinephelus itajara, is the largest grouper species in the Atlantic Ocean weighing up to 800 pounds. They were once so overfished in the southeastern United States, they were considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
The goliath grouper is found primarily in shallow tropical waters among coral and artificial reefs. Its range includes the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Keys in the United States, the Bahamas, most of the Caribbean, and most of the Brazilian coast. On some occasions, goliath grouper have been caught off the coast of New England in Massachusetts and Maine. In the eastern Atlantic Ocean, goliath grouper are found off the coast of Africa from the Congo to Senegal.
Threats to the species include commercial and recreational fishing, harmful algal blooms (red tide), and habitat loss.
Conservation and Management
Since 1990, the goliath grouper fishery has been closed to harvest throughout the southeast region of the United States (harvest was prohibited in the U.S. Caribbean in 1993). In 1991, it was listed as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and later listed a species of concern. Because of the success of the harvest prohibition, it was removed from the species of concern list in 2006. However, the goliath grouper fishery is still closed to harvest by fishery management councils.
Goliath grouper are currently listed as "critically endangered" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.
Scientists from our Southeast Fisheries Science Center are working to understand the changes that have occurred in coral reef ecosystems following the loss of top predators, such as groupers. The once common Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) and goliath grouper (E. itajara) have been so depleted that they are under complete protection from the South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean fishery management councils.
From 1997-2005, our researchers collaborated with Florida State University's Institute for Fishery Resource Ecology (Dr. Chris Koenig and Dr. Felicia Coleman) to monitor the status and recovery of goliath grouper. This goliath grouper research program investigated juvenile and adult jewfish abundance, distribution and migration patterns; their age and growth; and their habitat utilization. Research was conducted in the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida and in the offshore waters of the Florida Keys, the Gulf of Mexico, and South Atlantic. Florida State University investigations on goliath grouper continue.
Distribution, Abundance, and Habitat Needs of Juvenile Goliath Grouper
From 1997-2005, researchers studied and tagged juvenile jewfish in the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida. Our mark-recapture study utilized trot lines and circle hooks, fish traps and blue crab traps. Some of the larger fish were fitted with sonic transmitters to allow tracking throughout the year. This sonic data revealed seasonal movement patterns and provided important information on microhabitat utilization.
Our offshore work on adult jewfish has been conducted each summer/fall spawning period since 1994. With the help of Don DeMaria we have tagged over 1,000 adult jewfish and have observed aggregations of goliath grouper in both the Gulf of Mexico and more recently, the South Atlantic.
Posters created by the Center of Marine Conservation help disseminate information about our project and its requirements, highlighting our tagging study and the morphology of goliath grouper. The posters also have information on our tagging hotline so anglers and divers can call in any recapture or re-sighting information.
Age and Growth of Goliath Grouper
Given that these groupers were afforded protected status, researchers worked to utilize and develop novel non-lethal techniques to procure and analyze biological samples for life history information. Recent analysis by biologists at both of our Miami and Panama City laboratories, for example, have determined that dorsal spines can be used to effectively age juvenile goliath groupers (age 0-6), instead of using otoliths (which require sacrificing the fish (Brusher and Schull, 2008). Researchers have also determined that soft dorsal rays hold promise for ageing older fish (Murie et al, 2008).
Our researchers were also the first to capture recently settled juvenile goliath grouper, describe their settlement habitat, and determine ages of these very young fish, which helps us learn about when and where the adults are spawning (Koenig et al, 2007; Lara et al, 2008).
Red Tide Impacts on Goliath Grouper
In 2003 and 2005, significant red tide events occurred in Lee and Collier Counties of Southwest Florida. Reports of manatee and turtle strandings began pouring into local and state agencies in the region, along with reports of large fish washing up dead on southwest Florida beaches. Once these large fish were positively identified as goliath grouper, a team of biologists from our Southeast Fisheries Science Center went in search of these fish, to collect biological samples, especially otoliths (ear bones), which are valuable for determining the age of the fish. Because of the fish's protected status, researchers attempt to harm/kill as few goliaths as possible during the course of research. However, because of this, researchers lack otolith samples which are the most commonly used structure to determine the age of the fish.
These casualties, resulting from red tide, gave our biologists a unique opportunity to collect a multitude of biological samples, without having to sacrifice healthy animals. From these decomposing carcasses, biologists were able to record length for use in an age/length relationship, and were able to extract otoliths and remove dorsal spines and rays for comparison of hardparts in age and growth analysis. Tissue samples were also removed and sent to the Florida Marine Research Institute so they could evaluate the level of red tide toxin. The sampling trip gave these biologists an opportunity to educate the curious beach goers about red tide and goliath grouper (a few of which had been misidentified as baby manatees).
Assessing Population Status of Goliath Grouper
Attempts to evaluate the data needed to assess the status of these depleted stocks and develop rebuilding plans present unique challenges. In March 2003, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center convened a Stock Assessment Workshop, in St. Petersburg, Florida. Under the new SouthEast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR) protocol, scientists, constituents, and managers evaluated the data available for a goliath grouper stock assessment. The final stock assessment, released in 2004, demonstrated that the goliath grouper stock was recovering, but that full recovery to management targets might not occur until 2020 or later (SEDAR 2004). Discussion at the meeting highlighted the need for more population level assessment work for the species, which is difficult to deliver when the species is protected from harvest (Porch et al, 2006; Cass-Calay and Schmidt, 2009).
In 2006, we conducted a status review of the Goliath grouper to review whether the continental U.S. population of goliath grouper still warranted "species of concern" status under the Endangered Species Act. The 2006 report indicated that the species was on a recovery trajectory because of current management strategies and no longer qualified for species of concern status.
In 2010, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and NOAA Fisheries convened a benchmark goliath grouper assessment for the continental U.S. population. That assessment is complete and the final recommendations will be forthcoming. Also in 2010, Wild Earth Guardians petitioned the U.S. government to list goliath grouper under the Endangered Species Act.
This project would not have been possible without ongoing collaboration with researchers from Florida State University, Everglades National Park, and the recreational fishing and SCUBA diving communities. Funding for this project was provided by NOAA Fisheries' Office of Protected Resources, NOAA Fisheries' Essential Fish Habitat Initiative, NOAA-MARFIN Initiative, Everglades National Park, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Key Actions and Documents
2011 – NOAA Fisheries published a Notice of 90-Day Finding on a petition to list goliath grouper as threatened or endangered under the ESA (76 FR 31592). Based on the best scientific and commercial information available at the time, NOAA Fisheries determined that the species did not warrant listing under the ESA.
2010 – NOAA Fisheries received a petition from the WildEarth Guardians (PDF, 36 pages) to list goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara), Nassau grouper (E. striatus), and speckled hind (E. drummondhayi) as threatened or endangered under the ESA.
2006 – After evaluating the most current data, NOAA Fisheries concluded that the continental U.S. distinct population segment of goliath grouper had undergone significant increases in abundance since its identification in 1991 as a candidate species under the ESA and had become re-established throughout its historical range. As a result, goliath grouper (the continental U.S. distinct population segment) was removed from the species of concern list (71 FR 61022).
2004 – NOAA Fisheries announced the establishment of a species of concern list and revision of the ESA candidate species list (69 FR 19976). Twenty-five candidate species, including goliath grouper, were transferred to this species of concern list.
1991 – NOAA Fisheries identified goliath grouper (previously known as jewfish) as a candidate species under the ESA (56 FR 26797).