This paper reviewed the population status of Atlantic goliath grouper, Epinephelus itajara, in coastal waters of the southeastern United States. The study is based on quantitative surveys conducted by the authors and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Artificial Reef Program (n = 505), coupled with data submitted by REEF surveyors (n = 27,542) over 15+ yrs. The primary objective of the study is to describe the distribution and abundance of the goliath grouper population of the southeastern US with a focus on Florida, the center of US abundance for this species, the center for the historical fishery, and now the center of much controversy. A secondary, but quite important objective is to demonstrate the utility of using existing databases, such as that of REEF to provide what often amounts to the best scientific data available for informing management decisions, particularly in areas and for species for which there is no traditional fishery- dependent data collection.
The authors found that the population of goliath grouper, after dramatic fishery-induced declines in the 1970s and 1980s, and eventual fishery closure in the 1990s, increased off southwest Florida in the mid-1990s, directly offshore of the high-quality mangrove nursery of the Ten Thousand Islands. It then expanded north and south, eventually increasing off Florida’s central east coast. The study also evaluated tagging data, which showed that, regardless of life stage, individuals showed strong site fidelity to home sites: juveniles to mangrove nursery sites and adults to offshore reefs. All long-distance movements appeared to be in response to approaching maturity, with juveniles emigrating from mangroves to take up residence on offshore reefs, to seasonal spawning activity, with adults moving from home sites to aggregation sites, or to apparent feeding sites in inlets. Understanding these patterns of population recovery and movement is fundamental to devising appropriate management policies.