Reaching lengths of up to 2.5 metres and weighing as much as 360kg, the Atlantic goliath grouper is a species that lives up to its name. This stocky fish from the sea bass family is half as wide as it is long. It is mainly found in tropical waters around coral reefs at depths of five to 50 metres. The range of E. itajara is from Florida to Brazil in the western Atlantic Ocean and from Senegal to Congo in the eastern Atlantic.
While they once numbered in the tens of thousands, the world population of Atlantic goliath grouper is said to have declined by at least 80 percent over the past 40 years, suffering most in the 1970s and 1980s. The species is extremely susceptible to commercial and recreational overfishing due to its physical size and its slow growth and reproduction rates. Fishing for the goliath grouper is said to have begun in the late 1800s and spear fishing was especially popular in the Florida Keys. One fisherman quoted in National Geographic Magazine recalls fishing for goliath grouper 60 years ago: ‘The reefs were covered with them. There might be a hundred in one spot or a wall of them – something you don’t forget! I’d shoot one or two, get eight cents a pound for them. Did that for 15 years or more.’
Other threats to E. itajara are increases in ocean temperature that can bring on harmful algal blooms such as red tides – one that occurred in 2005 off the coast of Florida resulted in the death of an estimated 120 Atlantic goliath grouper – and loss of mangrove habitat where goliath groupers live for the first five years of their lives.
Fishing of Atlantic goliath grouper has been prohibited in the US since 1990 and the species has since experienced some recovery in the Florida region. Fishermen now insist that goliath grouper are so abundant that they interfere with their catches, eating fish right off their lines, and as such are calling for the ban to be renegotiated. Conservationists argue that such claims are exaggerated and that withdrawing the ban would be detrimental to widespread, long-term recovery of the species.