Diving with goliaths

Earlier this year I came face to face with some of the biggest and quite possibly the most endangered fish I’ve ever met.

For my PhD I studied humphead wrasse and spent a lot of time in their company underwater so I’m quite used to seeing big fish. But goliath groupers are massive.

Like humphead wrasse, dozens of them gather together in spawning aggregations to mate. But unlike my PhD subjects, the goliaths are big whether they’re male or female (humphead wrasse females are dainty and flip sex when they reach a metre or so in size). So when I dived with Sarah Frias-Torres off Jupiter, Florida I was blown away by the sight of so many enormous creatures getting ready to spawn.

I was also kind of freaked out by the people I was diving with. It was the first time I’d been on a boat filled with spear fishers. All guys, all covered head to foot in black neoprene, and all sporting enormous guns. I felt like I was in a James Bond movie. I think the presence of two female marine biologists on board made some of them uncomfortable, as they tried to reassure us that they eat everything they catch. But there were mixed feelings about the goliaths. Clearly a few of the gun-touting divers wished they were allowed to bring one home with them.

Goliath groupers are now strictly protected in Florida. Their numbers have been decimated in the past few decades by trophy hunting and a commercial fishery to make them into petfood. Now, if any of those guys I was diving with had shot a goliath – and been caught – they would have faced a hefty fine and possibly even time in jail.

I won’t say more about goliaths. But listen instead to someone who knows far more about these particular big fish in my report for the BBC’s Saving Speices programme. Sarah Frias-Torres talks about her work helping to protect them, including her recent paper demonstrating that goliaths aren’t responsible for the declines in local fish stocks – funnily enough, human fishers are to blame.

Sarah’s bit starts at around the 13 minute mark in the programme.

Photo courtesy of Alan Chung.

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