Planet Experts Organization, Teens4Oceans, has been involving youth in marine science for over 5 years. Before they became a registered nonprofit, they were going on trips and meeting scientists and conservationists with the founder (also their high school science teacher). The story below is about one of the people T4O students came to know early on and who continues to fight for the fish that brought the students to him. “A Goliath Fish Story” is Don DeMaria’s retelling of how his connection to the endangered Goliath grouper brought him and Teens4Oceans together and how T4O’s work continues to protect one of the biggest fish on the reef…
“I recall seeing my first goliath grouper when I was 5 years old. The year was 1956 and my parents had taken my brother and I to Marine Land (Marine Studios in those days) just south of St. Augustine Florida. The facility had all the tourist features–dolphin shows, gift shops, etc., but none of that really held my attention. The large central fish tank, with all sorts of reef fish, including several large goliath grouper, fascinated me. I remember looking at the goliath grouper, through the viewing portholes, and thinking how cool it would be to catch a fish that size.
Fast forward to 1972. I was in college and started diving for tropical fish and spearfishing off West Palm Beach. The older spearfishermen were full of stories about the enormous schools of goliath grouper that once roamed the reefs and wrecks in that area. Oddly, we saw very few in those days. The reefs and wrecks were so close to shore in that area, and there were so many divers, that it did not take long for these large schools of goliath grouper in that area to become depleted, once word got out.
Keep in mind that in those days the ocean seemed limitless in seafood production. If one area became overfished — we just moved on to another site — a little further offshore, and a little deeper. The National Marine Fisheries Service was called the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries back then — its main goal was to develop the nations fisheries. Florida had very few, if any regulations on saltwater fish. In fact the Florida tourist industry would advertise: come to Florida to fish–no season, no size limits and no license required. The word conservation was something applied to bison,ducks, elk and other upland species — not fish — why conserve something that seemed limitless?
In 1978 I moved to Key West and built my first boat, with the intention of spearfishing around the Keys and up into the Gulf. At that time there were still plenty of red snapper and grouper around and the goliath grouper was considered “trash fish” in the Gulf. Fishermen did not even bother with them as the price was so low and they took up so much room in their ice holds. I thought it would be a smart move to catch/spear these “underutilized” goliath grouper off Ft. Myers and Tampa, where there was little demand for them, and bring them back to Key West where they were a local delicacy. It was a good plan, and worked well for a number of years, but as time went on it became obvious their numbers were in serious decline. Once again the “underutilized species” became over fished in a matter of a few short years.
Several years ago we found a school of goliath grouper under the Bahia Honda bridge and thought it might be a good site to set up some sort of underwater webcam. However, none of us had a clue on how to do this — until Trevor Mendelow and T4O came onto the scene.We were all amazed at the technical skills they displayed. The students were as enthused as I was when I saw my first goliath grouper, but for different reasons. After their initial visit It was not long before Trevor and the students were back in the Keys, with all the equipment necessary to install the first, of many, underwater webcams.
Today, thanks to the efforts of many, the goliath grouper is protected and their numbers have rebounded, but they are not out of the woods yet. Continued incidental catch of goliaths, poaching and mercury contamination is keeping their numbers from reaching historical levels. Hopefully, with the continued attention that T4O has brought to this fish the public will begin to realize what a treasure they have in their backyards and take adequate steps to protect this species for generations to come.”