National Geographic : 2014 Jul
104 national geographic • July 2014 These are Atlantic goliath groupers. They gather on shipwrecks and reefs to eat and so- cialize. At up to 800 pounds and nine feet long, they sport jutting jaws and giant palm fronds for fins and are mottled and spotted in earth tones. They announce their presence to encroaching creatures by squeezing their swim bladders, the air sacs that help keep them afloat. Whump. Whump. WHUMP! Nowadays when it comes to goliaths, people are the noisy ones. Atlantic goliaths used to be numerous and widespread, inhabiting the waters of the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Brazil by the tens of thousands. But after years of being speared and hooked by the boat- load, their numbers dwindled to an unknown low, perhaps below a thousand. The Florida population is now rebounding, and fishermen, biologists, and local officials are raising their voices over whether the animals have recovered enough to shed their legal protection from peo- ple wielding spearguns and fishing lines. Chris Koenig of Florida State University has been catching goliaths for decades, but not to bring them home as fillets or trophies. With the help of some strong assistants, he hooks goli- aths and wrestles them on board a small boat to measure them, remove a cartilaginous fin ray for DNA and age tests, sample the stomach contents for diet studies, and check reproduc- tive organs for signs of spawning. Each fish gets a tag beneath its skin before the scientists slide the animal back into the sea. Tracking his catch- and-release fish, Koenig has been able to pile up information on where and when they show up and how healthy each one is. He and his wife and colleague, Felicia Coleman, who helps manage the slew of data, hope to get a handle on the current status of the species, Epinephelus itajara. The goliath’s own behavior contributed to its population drop. “Ordinarily these fish don’t move a whit; they are glued to the reef,” where food and shelter are plentiful, Koenig says. That makes them easy targets. “We used to shoot goliaths all the time,” says 86-year-old Frank Hammett, who spent much of his 20s with speargun in hand. “In Palm Beach you could see them sitting on the bottom in a hundred feet of water. The reefs were covered with them. There might be a hundred in one spot or a wall Off the coast of southwest Florida, a hundred feet below the water’s surface, a whump rolls through the sea. Another whump follows, like the boom of distant fireworks. It’s coming from the carcass of a drowned ship. Packed into the cracked- open belly of the wreck are a dozen very big—and very audible—fish. By Jennifer S. Holland Photographs by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes Jennifer S. Holland’s new book, Unlikely Heroes, will be out this fall. David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence for the May issue.