Here is the culmination of my PhD research at MIT, funded through a Fulbright: Dunning_Dissertation
How does media glorification of anglers with large goliath grouper catches mislead the public on Florida environmental law?
The Goliath Grouper (Epinephelus itajara) is a truly iconic Florida species found in the tropical and subtropical Atlantic. It is well known for its size, with Florida reefs hosting some famous groupers in the 4-800 pound range. Anyone who has been to Molasses Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has had an encounter with one of the resident goliaths.
Harvest and possession of goliath has been prohibited by Florida Fish and Wildlife since 1990. This is good, because we are not yet very skilled at counting goliaths. Officials performed an official tally, known as a stock assessment in 2010, but this was later discredited. The major takeaway here is that we just do not know how many there are. Another reason the protection is a good deal for the goliaths is because they are aggregate spawners, meaning they congregate in well known locations such as Jupiter’s M/V Castor Wreck dive. Thus, if they weren’t protected, people would know exactly where and when to go and spear several dozen at a time.
Given the smart moves Florida has made to protect this particularly special native species, I find it very strange the way the media glorifies fishermen who haul in these fish. Yesterday, a man caught a 400 lb goliath using a lure he made with a wrench. This went viral, and was widely covered in the Florida news media. But, coverage on the subject misses the chance to play a role in conservation. By not spreading information on best practices to reduce fish mortality during catch and release, Florida news media is missing a big opportunity to work to further grouper conservation.
We do not have a lot of data on whether certain species of fish can survive catch and release. Florida Fish and Wildlife do have some detailed guidelines on how to mitigate injury and death to catch and release fish, but who spends a lot of time on state level resource bureaucracies’ websites (besides this author)? This is where the news media can come in.
With groupers in particular, the issue is the risk of a distended air bladder when landing a grouper from their preferred habitat (10+ meters). Additionally, certain fish (including goliaths) are prohibited from being hauled up out of the water for a photo, since this could damage their delicate frame which cannot hold their mass outside of the underwater environment.
Every online piece or live report on a grouper catch and release should not just remind viewers and readers that goliath grouper landings are regulated, but also give the public practical information on how to catch and release these fish while ensuring they survive. Additionally, images like these should be used as informative teaching tools for what not to do (because doing so is illegal). This photo, and the terrestrial landing of the goliath that it depicts is prohibited by our own state laws, and yet it is still reported on as if it were an achievement for these Florida anglers. They are in violation of the letter of the law, and are ignoring best practices for reducing catch and release mortality.
Angling and angling culture is a huge part of what it means to be a Floridian, but we all need to take a bit more responsibility to ensure the longterm sustainability of our way of life. The media can play a major role when it stumbles on these viral goliath stories.