Importance of Natural Resources

Super Grouper – Full Episode

Major funding for this program was provided
by The Bachelor Foundation, encouraging people to preserve and protect America’s underwater
resources. It’s an imposing fish – sure to inspire
awe in those who see it. At a time when other large fish are rapidly
disappearing from the world’s oceans, this giant is making a comeback in Florida. It’s a unique feeling to be able to get
close to a marine animal that’s as big as you. This is the Goliath grouper – a fish once
almost hunted to extinction. It’s like going to a park where you never
saw a bear for years and years, and now you a dozen big grizzly bears – I mean it’s
an impressive thing to see. But the Goliath’s return is NOT a welcome
sight to all. Both spearfishermen and rod and reel fishermen,
believe the Goliath grouper is eating everything on the reef and is destroying the ecosystem. But what does the scientific data show? Are Goliaths’ really overpopulating the
reef? Or is this species just now beginning to recover? They are an impressive sight – the largest fish on the reef. They can weigh up to a thousand pounds – and
exceed seven feet in length. Goliath grouper, which used to be known as
Jewfish, historically were found from as far north as the Carolinas, across the Caribbean
and south to Brazil. The fish can also be found off the west coast
of Africa, and a distinct subspecies exists in the Pacific. Today, they are considered critically endangered
by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Everywhere, except southeastern United States,
they are indeed critically endangered. Of course, they’re protected all throughout
U.S. possessions, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands as well as southeastern United States. They were on the threatened species list but
they have been since taken off that list because their population in the southeastern United
States is on the road to recovery. Goliaths are a shallow water species, rarely
found at depths below 200 feet. They need water temperatures above 60 degrees
Fahrenheit to survive, which limits their range. And for the most part, they are curious, but
shy creatures. They often retreat to their favorite hideout
when humans approach. These are animals that don’t move much. They sit. They love wrecks. They love caves. They love any kind of structure that typically
has an overhead for them. It gives them a sense of security, I suppose. Basically, I kind of joke about calling them
the “couch potatoes” of the grouper family. They don’t even eat everyday. Aside from their tremendous size, divers and
fishermen can easily distinguish goliaths from other grouper species by the brown stripes
along the sides of their body and their distinctive rounded tail fin. Recreational fishermen have long enjoyed Florida’s
waters for the impressive catches they yield – which used to include Goliath Grouper. Historical photographs show proud anglers
posing beside their massive catches – fish larger then themselves. In those days, the resource seemed endless. The wrecks offshore, at 100, 150 feet probably
had over 100 jewfish each on them. They were just absolutely packed. Don DeMaria, who used to work as a commercial
fisherman, says Goliath Grouper are an easy target. He started spearing them commercially in the
late 1970s on remote wrecks in the Gulf of Mexico. We’d catch most of these jewfish between
Key West and Tampa, mostly off the Ft. Myers area. There seemed to be the biggest concentration
of them. And we’d bring them back and sell them in
Key West. In Key West it was always a local delicacy
among the conchs. Don and his colleagues discovered that goliath
grouper tend to aggregate around certain wrecks and ledges in the summertime. That’s when they aggregated to spawn, which
was the ultimate downfall of the fishery is that they aggregate in these large groups. With the advent of modern-day navigation devices,
fishermen could soon locate these aggregation sites easily in the offshore waters of the
Gulf. But over the years more and more people got
into it and it didn’t take much. Very little extra pressure and I saw spawning
aggregations go from 100 fish down to in one case just one fish, other areas none. One of these wrecks was the California. This wreck had an unbelievable amount of fish
on it, way over a hundred. And I went there after a charter dive boat
and it was just sickening what we saw. There was just fish swimming around with spears
in their sides. Others had big hook and line like broken chain-type
rigs where they had broken off. And it’s my understanding they took something
like 30 fish back to Marco Island, these fish would average about 200 pounds each, took
their photographs with them and didn’t have enough ice for the fish and ultimately it
just got wasted. That was in the late 1980s. Don and his friends decided to take action. Don knew so much about Goliath Grouper behavior
and populations and it was just amazing. And thank God he became a conservationist
because he could have probably wiped them out by himself. And he actually went the fishery management
councils and said, “You’ve got to stop fishing on this species; can’t take this
level of fishing; it’s going to be completely annihilated.” When you have a commercial fisherman that
comes up to you and says, “Save this fish” you pay attention to it. And I would say that he single-handedly convinced
people. That’s not usually the way it happens. It usually takes a long time before taht there’s
scientific evidence for that a population in trouble. There were people locally that grumbled about
it, but there were just so few fish left that there wasn’t much opposition. And so, in 1990, the goliath grouper fishery
was closed in US waters. Today, the harvest of this species is a 2nd
degree misdemeanor that carries a fine. A few years after the closure, marine ecologists
Dr. Felicia Coleman and Dr. Chris Koenig began studying the life history of these giant fish. The husband and wife team, who work at the
Coastal and Marine Laboratory at Florida State University, have conducted a number of studies
over the years to gain a better understanding of the species. To collect their data, scientists spend many
hours at sea. Chris works closely with local captains and
fishermen, who often have an intimate knowledge of the sites were the grouper can be found. One of them is Tony Grogan, who operates a
popular website for spear fishermen. Tony often volunteers his boat to take scientists
into the field. I’m a big advocate of good science and sound
fisheries management decisions. In recent years, goliath grouper have again
started to aggregate on wrecks and ledges near Jupiter, Florida, close to where Tony
lives. By the 1960s most of the goliaths’ along
South Florida’s Atlantic coast had been fished out, so it is very encouraging to see
the animals return. To collect valuable data about the fish, the
grouper need to be brought up to the surface. Usually, Chris sets a hand line to capture
the goliaths, but on this trip Tony and his friends came up with another idea. We’re actually fishing, hook and line, long
line underwater and we’re using a lift bag, to send the Goliath Grouper up. We tie off the lift bag away from the wreck,
so we can catch them and prevent them from running back into the wreck, and very carefully
send them back up on the lift bag. Cool, they got one. Look over there! Good job Jim. Once the fish is on the surface, it needs
to be brought up to the boat for a work-up. This particular goliath grouper is relatively
small and therefore easier to handle. Chris can tell how old the fish is by removing
parts of its dorsal fin ray. That’s the so called soft ray. It lays down rings like the rings of a tree
so we can estimate age of the fish. Traditionally fish are aged by looking at
the rings found in their ear bones. But since this would require killing the fish,
Chris and Felicia discovered that taking a piece of the dorsal fin ray works just as
well. We felt like it was very important not to
sacrifice those fish. You can remove the rays from the fish and
they can re-grow. You can go back and check on a number of different
things like growth rate of individual fish, if you can repeatedly capture the same individual. Historically, goliath grouper can live to
at least 37 years old, but because of the severe fishing pressures in the past, the
current population is still relatively young. All of the individuals we’ve looked at are
under 18 which is the time of the fishery closure in 1990. So their population was clearly beat way,
way back. Next it’s time to analyze the stomach contents
of the fish. This is done by inserting a metal tube into
the mouth of the fish, and pulling out whatever food may be in the fish’s stomach. By and large, they’re eating crabs, shrimp;
they’re eating some lobster. They’re eating…stingrays and things like
that. Now that just gives you a snapshot of what
the fish just ate. To really get a comprehensive look at the
diet of the fish, scientists need to conduct a chemical analysis of tissue samples. And what you’re looking for there is a signal
or a signature that tells you what the diet is made up of. So the studies that we’ve done on Goliath
Grouper strongly indicate that these guys eat crustaceans, not fish primarily. Having this kind of data is not only interesting
from a scientific standpoint, but it also helps to shed light on a big controversy that
has been brewing since the number of goliaths’ has gone up again in Florida waters. A lot of the fishermen are under the impression
that Goliath Grouper are destroying the reefs by focusing on feeding on the other grouper
and snapper species, leaving fewer for them to fish. Now an equally plausible explanation for what
they think is happening, is that all of the grouper and snapper have basically been fished
out. And the reason they’re seeing Goliath Grouper
is because it’s a protected species and so that’s what’s left on the reef. There’s no question that they’re opportunistic. If they see a fish going by on a hook or piece
of bait, they’ll take it. But, Felicia says, snapper and other grouper
species do not seem to be their preferred diet. Once all the scientific data has been collected,
and the fish has been tagged, it is time to release it. We’ve tagged thousands of fish over the
last 10 or 12 years, and we find the same fish on the same rock year after year after
year. And that’s not to say that the fish don’t
move. When sex comes into the picture, they’ll
go 100 miles and participate in spawning events, but they’ll come back to the same rock. Scientists aren’t sure how these fish know
where to join up for these annual aggregations that have been documented in the Gulf of Mexico
during the late summer months. In recent years, the fish have also been gathering
in the Atlantic, near Jupiter. It is suspected that these might be spawning
sites as well, and to test that hypothesis, Tony and the scientists head back out later
in the day to study the aggregation sites. But will they be able to gather goliath grouper
eggs, the ultimate proof that spawning is taking place? The information that we’ve gotten from studies
on done on sound output by Goliath Grouper during spawning indicate that they spawn around
a new moon on dark nights, somewhere between midnight and 3 a.m. in the morning. And this is evidence, as I said, but we don’t
have any real proof that they’re doing this, and proof would constitute collecting their
fertilized eggs. Chris deploys plankton nets in the water at
night, in hopes of catching some eggs. Meanwhile, his colleague Jim Locascio, who
studies fish acoustics, prepares to deploy a hydrophone in the vicinity of the nets. The dominant sounds tonight in this environment
are probably going to be by the Goliath Grouper at an expected spawning location. Sounds produced by many species of fish are
done so in a specific behavioral context, most often it’s associated with courtship
and spawning and in most cases, almost without exception it is the male that produces the
sound, courting, advertising, for a female. This is a hydrophone that is connected to
the top of the housing and it is just like an underwater microphone; it is going to be
recording ambient sounds in a frequency range that is within the sounds made by the goliath
grouper, which is quite low, below a 100 hertz about 40 or 50 hertz, very low frequencies. Alright, it’s on the bottom Tony. If this location is indeed a spawning site,
the dominant sounds recorded should be those of the goliath grouper. Goliath Grouper are famous for the very loud
booming sounds they make- not just to attract potential mates- but also as a defense mechanism
to scare off potential predators. They’re very deep resonating “booms”
and they make them with their swim bladder and muscles that are attached to the swim
bladder. They vibrate those muscles at a rapid speed,
say 100 times a second or in that range. The closest thing I can liken it to on land
is like a sonic boom. Often time divers are able to feel the sound
before, they’re able to hear it. You feel it in your lungs, it’s a concussion
from that pressure and so it’s quite intimidating as a diver if you aren’t aware the fish
is around. They do not appear to have a diverse vocabulary,
that is the sounds that are produced when divers approach them also seems to be the
same sound that they produce with and amongst each other. Now it’s time to sit and wait. Early the next morning–Just keep pulling–
Chris and Jim retrieve the nets and hydrophone. Once ashore, the nets are washed down and
their contents put through a sieve. It’s fairly easy to separate the eggs from
other plankton. And then, because of their stage of development
and their size, we should be able to select Goliath Grouper eggs from the, from whatever
else we’ll catch because they should be in very early stages of development when we
pull our nets. While Chris is taking a close look at the
plankton under the microscope, Jim analyzes the sound he recorded on location. We recorded a lot of low frequency pulse sounds
that you can see as the brighter signals along the bottom of the picture here of the spectrogram
and most of this energy is at 100 hertz or below 100 hertz. And, so, there’s a series of individual
calls that we can zoom in on and look closely at and identify the fish, uh, as a Goliath
Grouper. Jim’s sound recordings indicate that the
scientists documented a spawning aggregation. But the ultimate proof is in the eggs – thousands
of which Chris collected in his nets. Later DNA tests of these eggs confirmed what
scientists were hoping for –that goliath grouper are spawning again on Florida’s
east coast. Once the fertilized eggs hatch, the larvae
will float in the plankton for about a month and a half. They hatch out probably in a day and half. But when they hatch out, they don’t have
any mouths and they don’t have any eyes. So, they’re still simply floating around,
still living off of their yolk material. And over the next week or so, they develop
mouth and eyes and they learn how to feed. And then, there’s the growth period, and
by the time they settle, they’re about three-quarters of an inch in total length. They undergo this metamorphosis that takes
about a week, and then they’re little grouper and they live in the mangrove leaf litter
in the earliest, earliest stages and then move to the undercuts in the mangrove habitat. The fish will spend their juvenile years in
the mangrove forests, using the mangrove’s prop roots as protective cover from potential
predators. North America’s largest remaining mangrove
forest is in the 10-Thousand Islands area of Southwest Florida, the main stronghold
for juvenile goliath grouper. We lost 28% of the mangroves in the Ten Thousand
Islands area just between the mid-eighties and the mid-nineties. That’s a significant loss, considering it
went on since the beginning of the 1900’s for mosquito abatement, for agriculture, for
just development of all of South Florida. The east coast essentially has no mangroves
of consequence anymore. So there’s a tight connection between the
habitat availability and the success of this species. And it’s not just availability of juvenile
habitat that matters, but the quality of that habitat is important as well. Water quality for Goliath Grouper, like most
species, is important. It’s particularly an issue in the juvenile
habitat. We looked at them in a really pristine area
in the Ten Thousand Islands, which is just incredible; but, there are a number of rivers
and canals that lead into that body of water. For one reason or another, the water quality
is very poor. And what happens in those areas is that the
density of Goliath Grouper is not very high. So if you think about how you want to go about
protecting a species like Goliath Grouper, it takes more than closing down the fishery;
you need to protect the quality of water, the extent of the habitat, and keep fishing
at a minimum. Goliath Grouper are easy to exploit. They aren’t difficult to catch, and they
can be found in large groups during the summer aggregations. They’re relatively slow to mature. They’re staying in the mangroves for five
or six years. And when they first go offshore, they’re
not necessarily mature at that time. And yet, you’re talking about an animal
that’s 50, 60, 70 pounds and it’s still a juvenile. They become sexually mature at about four
feet in length. And so, they become sexually mature as a function
of size, rather than age. While some grouper species change sex during
their lifetime, Chris and Felicia say no such evidence exists for the goliath grouper. Scientists and many others are excited that
the Goliath Grouper population is on the road to recovery. Walt Stearns is a professional photographer,
who also publishes an online magazine called Underwater Journal. His career has taken him to underwater locations
all over the world, and he is delighted to see the fish make such a steady comeback in
Florida. At the same time I was working for dive magazines
covering central and southern Caribbean’s in the Bahamas and I’m watching all grouper
just diminish. Each time I went back I’d see less of them,
see smaller fish. And here I’m seeing the Goliath Grouper
come back. And this is really incredible to see protection work. Unfortunately not everyone shares his view. Some fishermen not only claim the grouper
are eating all their game fish, but they also accuse the species of being aggressive towards
them. I’ve never had any of them get aggressive. But you know, some people will sit there and
give these stories and its like, “It came out and grabbed me and grabbed my arm and
shook me like a rag doll.” And I was like really? I’ve never had that happen yet. I mean, they’re big enough and strong enough
where they physically can really hurt you, but for the most part, they’re big babies. On his website, Tony hears
from folks on all sides of the issue. The Internet is a big wild and wily place,
and there are opinions all over. What I try to do is just take the middle road
and ask questions about do we know enough to make an intelligent decision about any kind of
fishery management decision. Both scientists Felicia and Chris agree that
while the grouper’s recovery is encouraging, it is too early to re-open the fishery. When you’ve got a species that’s critically
endangered throughout its range and you have one area where it’s recovering, that being
the southeastern United States, it doesn’t make sense to open a fishery again, even at
reduced levels when we really don’t understand what the population’s doing yet. I think that until the entire population has
recovered throughout its former range, there should be no harvest of Goliath Grouper. Below the water’s surface, the goliath grouper
is oblivious to the controversy it has stirred up on land. It goes about its business, like its ancestors
have done for ages. Most people, who have had the privilege of
seeing these fish up close, especially in large numbers, agree that they are an awesome
sight to behold – one that hopefully will be around for many future generations to enjoy. It’s hard to think of anybody who couldn’t
be fascinated by them. They’re fabulous fish and they’re a key
feature to the ecology of this part of the world. I think it’s one of those animals that’s
worth a lot more alive than dead. People can go out to the reef and these wrecks
and see these fish over and over again, take pictures of it. It’s just you kill it one time and its over
with, that’s it, a fish that took 30 or 50 years to get to that size. It’s something that is unique to South Florida,
there’s nowhere else in the world where you can go where it is documented to see these
large aggregations of big grouper like this. Major funding for this program was provided
by The Bachelor Foundation, encouraging people to preserve and protect America’s underwater

Reader Comments

  1. I wouldn’t listen to a lot of fisherman because they’re fucking idiots and they only want to be able to catch the fish they don’t really care about its well being. Some do but not many, that’s why they hunt fish instead of save them. They assume there is a lot of them just because they take your fucking catch, that’s not really the smartest type of science to base wether or not the species has enough to be hunted again and if say no there isn’t enough hard evidence, that fisherman is a fucking idiot😊🖕


  3. Stupid humans.they LIVE HERE in the water NOT you.leave them alone.they were here before you(in the water).

  4. Dive and spear fish in the keys for 20 years, leave the jew fish grouper along, is so beautiful fish will be criminal to kill them. Buy a cup of soup, and let the fish live, his been there for thousands of years

  5. Biologists fail us. They can't teach us evolution. Instead of their stupid plea: let's rescue and save the groupers from extinction they should more stick to the not entertaining but more relevant truth: let's rescue us humans by rescuing those groupers. Without working ecosystems humans are dead. Extinct. Humans can't live without intact oceans, can't live without insects, cant live without plants etc.

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