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The Goliath Grouper is a Not-so-Lucky Fish

Goliath Grouper in Key Largo
January 11, 2022

One of my most memorable fish stories dates back more than 15 years when Jill and I visited Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

We dropped in on the popular Cod Hole dive site, home to an enormous grouper species known by locals as the ‘Potato Cod’.*

By the time we visited, hand-feeding by dive guides wasn’t allowed, but these 200 lb behemoths were still used to having scuba divers around. They’d follow you hoping you’d have a treat in your pocket and even lie on the sand like huge puppy dogs!

However after dark they were out and about, very active as we found out during a night dive at Cod Hole. The dive guide warned us not to shine our flashlights** too long on any fish life otherwise we were lighting up dinner for these guys.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought! Typical Australian exaggeration.

I got down and moments after lighting up the first fish I see, I got shoved aside. A giant cod that seemed the size of a VW beetle rushed in and snapped it up. I was sent flying underwater.

This huge fish had been behind me all along, looking over my shoulder and waiting for me to find dinner for him!

I learned my lesson. The rest of the night dive I was aware of a presence behind me and a quick glance and flash would confirm one of these giants right behind me. A bit unnerving.

big fish with scuba divers
Great Barrier Reef, 2005

When we met that big old fish 15 years ago in Australia, we didn’t think we’d have to try save its cousin in Florida.

Here in Key Largo, we like to say that all the fish you see on Lucky Fish Scuba charters are ‘lucky fish’ because we only look and photograph. No fishing or spearing from our boat!

One of those lucky fish is a cousin to the Australian potato cod : the Western Atlantic Goliath grouper. Topping out over 8ft long and up to 800lbs, it’s the biggest fish on our Florida reef.

Jill’s most memorable encounter with this big fish came in June 2019 when she was working on her Divemaster course.

We were out at Key Largo’s Horseshoe Reef for a quick ‘search and recovery training dive’. While looking for the fake Rolex watch that I always throws overboard for these exercises, she ended up stumbling across a very large Goliath Grouper instead!!

Goliath Grouper in Key Largo
Excuse me, mister, have you seen a watch around here?

Sadly, we haven’t seen that big guy in over a year.

But in recent months, Divemaster Stephanie has enjoyed checking in on the progress of a strapping young juvenile at one of our favorite dive sites.

Even as a youngster, it’s one of the biggest fish we can show you on the reef.

And the loss of even one of them leaves a big hole in the habitat.

We hope this young fish gets a chance to live out its full life span of 35 years or more, but we’re nervous.

Decades of overfishing almost caused the Goliath Grouper to go extinct. After an official designation as a vulnerable species, harvest and possession have been prohibited in Florida since 1990. The Goliath grouper population does seem to have grown, but scientists still have a lot of questions to answer before declaring that they’re out of the woods.

Unfortunately, last year the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the controlling body for fisheries in Florida decided to move toward allowing a ‘limited harvest’ of the Goliath Grouper.

You can read more about that decision, and access important research carried out by our friends at REEF using data collected by divers across the state here.

This month FWC will hold online workshops to review the proposed draft rules for fishing for Goliath grouper. Up to 200 fish per year are at risk (including from the Everglades National Park !!!) if these rules are adopted.

As divers and conservationists, we’re pretty appalled at this decision and have made it a New Year’s Resolution to get involved.

Won’t you join us in participating in one of the workshops on January 11 or 13 or submit a comment?

Click here to get the meeting and comment links from DEMA, which represents the scuba diving industry — including a sample letter you can adapt with your own fish story.

Let’s help this big fish get away!


*’Potato’ because that’s what their spots look like. ‘Cod’ because…?

** Or torches as they are known to English speakers

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