ORCA Ocean Research and Conservation Association

Goliath Grouper Program Update
Scarface, Sharkbite and Stevie Nicks are back!. In the last few weeks, ORCA researcher Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres has encountered some old friends - goliath groupers she's been tracking for a year in the vicinity of the Zion wrecks, off Jupiter, FL. During the goliath grouper breeding season of 2010, she identified three individual groupers with unique markings. Scarface has a series of scars over his head and upper part of the body. He was identified as a male, as he displayed the courtship behavior unique to males. Sharkbite has a piece of the gill cover missing, as if a shark took a bite of it, and was identified as a male, because he displayed the dark colors expected in males during courtship behavior. "Stevie Nicks" is of indeterminate sex and was identified by a series of cuts or nicks along the caudal fin.

How to support Goliath Grouper research (Project Itajara)
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Goliath Grouper Fact Sheet
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This research and outreach effort was supported by the Schmidt Research Vessel Institute

The goliath grouper Epinephelus itajara is the largest grouper in the Atlantic Ocean and one of the two largest species of groupers in the world, exceeding 2 m (6 feet) in total length, and reaching up to half a ton in weight. Only the giant grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus) of the Indo-Pacific exceeds the goliath grouper dimensions (up to 3 m or 9 feet in length). Goliath groupers traditionally occurred in tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, from Florida to Brazil (to Sao Paulo), throughout the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and along the West African coast from Senegal to Congo.

The species is extremely vulnerable to overfishing due to a combination of life history traits typical in large grouper fish, such as slow growth, long life (exceeding 4 decades), late sexual maturity (up to 8 years),
strong site fidelity, and formation of spawning aggregations. Due to overfishing, goliath groupers became commercially extinct in the USA in the late 1980s. A US federal fishing ban has protected the species since 1990. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, the species is either overfished or reaching ecological extinction levels. In west Africa, scientists suspect goliath groupers are completely extinct. Since 1994, the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies goliath groupers throughout the remainder of its western Atlantic distribution area as critically endangered.

Today, Florida is the only place in the world where goliath groupers can be found on a regular basis throughout the year, and in their spawning aggregation sites in late summer. The species is mangrove-dependent, and shows a distinct size-related habitat shift. Juvenile goliaths (up to 1.1 m or 3 feet in total length) are found exclusively in fringing red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) shorelines. Adults (3 feet long and beyond) are found in coral reefs, isolated patch reefs, reef/rock ledges, and artificial structures. The curious nature of goliath groupers, unafraid of divers and very friendly, made them an extremely easy target for spearfishing. Today, such special charisma makes goliath groupers a welcome attraction for the recreational SCUBA diver. From overfishing to conservation, the story of the goliath grouper in Florida is one of hope for the many species of marine megafauna (the ocean giants) under threat today. Perhaps the Florida example can travel throughout the Atlantic and inspire new conservation initiatives for the goliaths across the Caribbean.

Quiz: Five Common Myths About Goliath Grouper
Think you know all about the Goliath Grouper? There are five common myths associated with this ocean giant. Debunking myths, and common misconceptions, is critical in protecting these creatures. Take The Quiz

Follow Sarah Frias-Torres' Goliath Grouper Research
Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres is a broadly trained, fieldwork oriented marine ecologist and biological oceanographer. Her research interests include: (1) Effects of global climate change in tropical marine ecosystems, (2) Coral reef and mangrove ecosystem resilience, (3) Behavioral ecology and conservation biology of marine megafauna, (4) Life histories, reproduction and parental care in fishes, (5) Marine biodiversity and, (6) Development of novel low cost high-tech ocean sensors. Dr. Frias-Torres is committed in making her research available to the general public through science outreach, such us writing magazine or newspaper articles and documentary filmmaking. She is currently an adjunct researcher at Ocean Research & Conservation Association, Fort Pierce, Florida, USA. Read More

Goliath Grouper Moratorium Continues
Ongoing work from ORCA researcher Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres was critical in securing
an extension of the moratorium on goliath grouper harvest at a recent Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting.

On February 23, 2011, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission decided to extend the 1990 moratorium on goliath grouper harvesting based on the scientific evidence that the species has not yet recovered from the commercial extinction event of the late 1980s. The Commissioners were not explicit on extending a blanket moratorium all the way through 2015 as the Fishery Management Councils (Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic) had already recommended after their own independent assessments. Instead, the commissioners asked to receive yearly updates on how ongoing research projects are answering the information gaps on this species. At the meeting, the scientific evidence presented by ORCA researcher Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres on goliath grouper life history, juvenile mangrove habitat use and behavior of grouper spawning aggregations along with research by other scientists was critical in securing the decision.




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National Geographic

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