Concerns arise over barracuda, Goliath grouper

Concern about barracuda and questions about catching Goliath grouper reached two of Florida’s top fishery managers at a Tuesday meeting in Islamorada.

Meeting at the Islander Resort in Islamorada, members of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council asked Jessica McCawley of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Roy Crabtree of the National Marine Fisheries Service about reports that barracuda are being taken by spearfishers for commercial sale.

With minimal regulations on barracuda, the extent of the rumored market for barracuda is uncertain. Council member Martin Moe, a fishery biologist, said he has heard accounts of “areas denuded of a valuable apex predator.”

McCawley, director of the FWC’s Marine Fisheries Management, said the agency “has been watching” the barracuda situation and aims to bring the issue to the state agency board later this year.

“It would probably take six to eight months to go all the way through process,” McCawley said, meaning any new rule may not take effect before mid-2014.

“I hope that’s not too late,” Moe said.

Sanctuary council member Richard Grathwohl, a Marathon fishing guide, said before the meeting that he is alarmed by the reports of a growing commercial harvest of barracuda.

The sportfishing industry “needs barracudas in the winter during those times when there’s not much else for people to catch,” he said.

Jeff Cramer, a council member representing the Keys commercial industry, said many local residents won’t eat barracuda because of the potential of ciguatera, a disease sometimes transmitted by eating larger reef predators.

“It’s a fun sportfish to catch but it’s not a challenge to shoot a barracuda,” Cramer said. “Spearfishing should not be allowed for them.”

If the reports of a surge in barracuda harvesting are true, Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center Assistant Professor David Kerstetter told the Keynoter, “It’s something of concern.”

Barracuda are the primary predators at the Keys coral reef so “uncontrolled removals could have overall detrimental effects on the reef ecosystems, which are already under stress from overexploitation, climate change” and more.

Crabtree, the Marine Fisheries Service’s administrator for the U.S. Southeast Region, fielded a question about the possible harvest of Goliath grouper after reports of an increasing population.

“We really don’t know if the stock is rebuilt,” Crabtree said. “It’s probably close but we don’t know…. A lot of people feel if we open the bag limit, people will fish [Goliath grouper] right back down.”

McCawley said the University of Florida is working on a new stock assessment for Goliath grouper. “We want more advice,” she said. “We know it’s a big issue for a lot of people.”

McCawley and Crabtree attended the Tuesday session to discuss fishery management issues that affect the sanctuary.

Council member Peter Frezza, an Audubon biologist and part-time fishing guide, praised government action that has increased the population of small-toothed sawfish.

“We just needed to stop killing them,” Crabtree said. “We were killing too many of them.”

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