The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will vote next month on a new proposal to reopen the Goliath grouper fishery.

The proposal calls for 100 more fish to be harvested than initially proposed three years ago, but does set aside some spawning areas not recognized in the initial proposal.

The FWC board will vote on a draft of the new rules at its Oct. 6 meeting in St. Augustine. The latest draft includes the harvest of up to 200 Goliath per year, with harvest opportunities awarded via random-draw lottery with a maximum of one permit and tag per person per year, a lottery application fee of $10 and a permit fee of $500. The proposal sets a slot limit of 20-36 inches total length and allows hook-and-line as the only allowable gear, with an open harvest season of March 1 through May 31 each year.

The proposal three years ago called for 100 a year Goliath groupers to be harvested.

Also, the new rules allow for the harvest in all state waters, except those of Palm Beach County south through the Atlantic coast of Monroe County, and a requirement for participants to submit harvest and biological information.

For the past several years, FWC board member Robert Spottswood, a Key West developer and resort and marina owner, has been lobbying to allow a limited harvest of Goliath grouper, which has been closed to harvest since 1990.

“I have seen first-hand evidence and heard from fishermen that there is an abundance,” Spottswood said. “I think the science supports it. We have had three stock assessments that say it’s OK.”

However, those stock assessments did not survive peer review in the scientific community. But, Spottswood argued that those stock assessment are “not wrong, but there wasn’t enough data points available.”

A requirement of the harvest would be submitting measurements, fin clips and other data to FWC researchers, Spottswood said.

FWC staff admitted “the population could not be assessed through a traditional stock assessment,” but the available information about stock rebuilding in the U.S. has informed how the Goliath population is categorized, FWC staff said.

In 2006, NOAA Fisheries removed Goliath groupers from their Species of Special Concern list when a status report showed a significant increase in abundance in the U.S. population, with Goliath re-establishing themselves in their historical range, FWC staff stated. Goliath has never been listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In 2018, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an independent organization, improved their listing of Goliath from “critically endangered” to “vulnerable” on their Red List of Threatened Species, according to FWC staff.

However, some leading researchers of Goliath grouper, including Florida marine biologists Chris Koenig and Chris Malinowski, contend the science does not support reopening the fishery.

The numbers of Goliath grouper populations dropped dramatically in cold weather events in 2008 and 2010 and the populations have been declining since 2010, Malinowski said. Also, the fish are impacted by red tides, which have become a severe problem in Florida, Malinowski and Koenig said.

The FWC staff did not take into account data from the Great Goliath Grouper Count and some data from Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Foundation’s fish surveys, Koenig and Malinowski added.

The juvenile Goliath groupers’ habitat have been reduced to one-tenth of its historical amount, Koenig said.

“Without juvenile habitat you don’t get production,” Koenig said.

The data “contradicts what FWC staff is representing to the commission,” Malinowski said.

Malinowski and Koenig questioned the objectivity of the staff’s proposal because they work for the commission and Spottswood, who has been lobbying for the reopening of the fishery, they said.

Koenig, who has been studying Goliath grouper for nearly 25 years and authored multiple research papers on the fish, called the process “corrupt.”

“It sounds like they don’t want to hear the science,” said Koenig, who added the commissioners are political appointees. “I am really upset by this system.”

Malinowski and Koenig have also raised concerns about the high levels of mercury in Goliath grouper.

Researchers found high mercury concentrations in Goliath groupers, to the point where the fish showed “lesions compatible with chronic mercury poisoning,” according to a 2013 study for the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

The 2013 Florida Fish Advisory, published by the Florida Department of Health, advises that children and pregnant women should not eat blackfin tuna, cobia, barracuda, king mackerel and all species of shark. The agency advises that no one should eat king mackerel larger than 31 inches, or any coastal shark species bigger than 43 inches.

The study found that mercury levels in adult Goliath grouper are as high as, or higher, than those of these restricted species. Levels are so high that mercury-induced lesions were found in adult Goliath grouper’s liver, kidney and gills, according to Koenig.

“They are putting people at tremendous risk,” Koenig said.