Goliath Grouper: Epinephelus itajara
The giant of the grouper family, the goliath (formerly called jewfish) has brown or yellow mottling with small black spots on the head and fins, a large mouth with jawbones that extend well past its small eyes, and a rounded tail. It also has five dark body bands or stripes that are most visible on young goliath.
Catching and Releasing Goliath Grouper
What to do when you’ve caught a goliath grouper?
- Harvest and possession has been prohibited in both state and federal waters off Florida since 1990.
- Must be immediately returned to the water free, alive and unharmed.
- Photographs can be taken but only during the active act of release. Photographs or any other activities such as measuring the fish should not delay release in any way.
- Large goliath groupers should be left in the water during release. The skeletal structure of large goliath grouper cannot adequately support their weight out of the water without some type of damage. If a large goliath is brought on-board a vessel or out of the water, it is likely to sustain some form of internal injury and therefore be considered harvested.
- Removing smaller goliath groupers from the water to remove hooks is not necessarily a bad practice, but this process must be done with care, using proper fish handling techniques, and return the fish to the water as expeditiously as possible.
- Learn more about Fish Handling and maximizing fish survival when practicing catch and release.
Goliath grouper populations dramatically declined throughout their range during the 1970s and 1980s due to increased fishing pressure from commercial and recreational fishers and divers. Prohibited species receive greater protection to ensure continued health.
This led to a prohibition from harvest in U.S. waters in 1990.
Goliath grouper populations have substantially recovered since the harvest prohibition took effect. There have been increases in abundance in certain areas (e.g., Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor and the Ten Thousand Islands), and the distribution of goliath grouper populations has extended into areas of its former range throughout Florida, including the Big Bend and Panhandle regions.
However, it is not clear as to when they may fully recover and when harvest restrictions could be relaxed.
A stock assessment (SEDAR 23, 2010 ) was completed in 2010 but an independent review panel found the stock assessment to be inconclusive.
The FWC along with federal partners including the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration formed a committee to determine data needs to assess the health of the goliath grouper population and develop potential management approaches.
At their July 2014 meeting in Key Largo, this committee reviewed the most up-to-date scientific information on goliath grouper and recommended a new stock assessment for this species.
The FWC will conduct this assessment, which is scheduled to be completed in spring 2015. If this new stock assessment is accepted as scientifically sound under an independent peer-review process, the assessment would be used to inform state and federal fishery managers of the status of the goliath grouper stock and provide some indication if the stock could withstand some harvest pressure.
Goliath grouper is the largest of the western north Atlantic groupers. This giant can reach 800 pounds (455 kg) and over 8 feet (2 meters) in length. The Florida record is a 680-pound goliath grouper caught off Fernandina Beach in 1961. The species had been targeted both commercially and recreationally since at least the late 1800s.
Goliath grouper are extremely vulnerable to overfishing due to a combination of life history traits such as slow growth, long life, late sexual maturity, strong site fidelity and the formation of spawning aggregations. Additionally, goliath grouper are vulnerable to cold temperatures and red tide.
When not feeding or spawning, adult goliath groupers are generally solitary, sedentary and territorial. Before the goliath grouper reaches full-size it is preyed upon by barracuda, king mackerel and moray eels, as well as sandbar and hammerhead sharks. Once fully grown, humans and large sharks are the goliath grouper's only predators.
Walt Stearns, www.underwaterjournal.com
Goliath grouper are opportunistic predators and feed mostly on slow-moving, bottom-associated species. Calico crabs make up the majority of their diet, with other invertebrate species and fish filling in the rest. Goliath grouper will occasionally feed on fish that are struggling on a fishing line, but they have not been shown to actively hunt down fast, free swimming fish such as snappers and groupers. Prey is ambushed, caught by a rapid expansion and opening of the mouth that allows prey to be sucked in and swallowed whole.
Goliath grouper were historically found in tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, both coasts of Florida and from the Gulf of Mexico down to the coasts of Brazil and the Caribbean.
In waters off Florida, young goliath grouper spend up to 5-6 years in mangrove habitat, particularly in the Ten Thousand Islands area off southwest Florida, which seems to be its center of abundance and may serve as critical nursery habitat. Because mangroves serve as important juvenile habitat for these fish, their loss could affect population recovery even if reproductive levels of adult fish are high. As they grow, goliath grouper move to shallow reefs, eventually joining adult populations offshore on shallow artificial and natural reefs. Adults seem to prefer habitat with overhangs, bridges, piers and shipwrecks.
Goliath grouper are relatively long-lived, with a maximum known age to be at least 37 years old. However, some scientists estimate that these fish may have the ability to live over 50 or even 100 years. Reproductive maturity first occurs in fish 5 or 6 years of age (about 36 inches in length) due to their slow growth rate. Males mature at a smaller size (about 42 inches) and slightly younger age than females. Females first mature at 6-7 years of age and 47-53 inches in length. In the eastern Gulf, goliath grouper have been known to form spawning groups of 100 individuals or more. These groups occur at consistent sites such as wrecks, rock ledges and isolated patch reefs during July, August and September. Studies have shown fish may move up to 62 miles (100 km) from inshore reefs to these spawning sites. In southwest Florida, presumed courtship behavior has been observed during the full moons in August and September.
More Goliath Grouper Information
Report Goliath Grouper Sightings
Goliath Grouper Identification
Florida Museum of Natural History Ichthyology Department