Gus the Grouper: More Than Just A Fish: Interview with Jeremy Wade
|A magnificent Goliath photographed by master underwater photographer Doug Kahle.|
HOW GUS GOT HIS NAME
"His name is Gus," Don Voss said. The Vietnam veteran turned diver and sailor, spoke in a gruff voice but was sweet in his demeanor. "Yeah, I recognize the fish. I saw him around the time Jeremy caught him. He's still around."
Goliath groupers have a mottled exterior with particular markings that make them recognizable from other fish of the same species, so it's not unusual that Voss knew the fish when he saw him on TV. Voss, who was recently nominated for an Ocean Heroes award, spends a considerable amount of time underwater; he organizes diving trips during slack tide to remove marine debris from Fort Pierce and surrounding inlets through the Marine Cleanup Initiative.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
|The controversial photo that frustrated many Florida conservationists.|
A group of conservation-minded divers became upset when River Monsters broadcasted an accidental by-catch of a Goliath grouper near Fort Pierce Inlet. The catch took place last summer when Wade returned to Florida to film a targeted bull shark catch in the Indian River Lagoon for the season four premiere, American Killers. (Watch the segment at Animal Planet online.)
I learned about the issue through the River Monsters Facebook page. (River Monsters on Facebook has since blocked its wall, so I cannot link to the original discussion.)
I researched the matter and was mortified. Here I am preaching conservation and I had previously posted a photo of Jeremy Wade with Gus above the water; possessing the fish in such a manner is illegal according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC). The problem was not the catch itself -- a by-catch is often unavoidable -- it was how the fish was handled for the camera and how no information was immediately available to audiences in the show's footnotes about the sensitive status of the species.
To be fair, Animal Planet does state that Goliath groupers are "fully protected" on the Discovery Channel website, but there is no reference to FWC regulations about handling the fish once it is caught. Yet titling a video "How to Catch a Goliath Grouper" is potentially misleading to a naive public.
GOLIATH GROUPER REGULATIONS
Goliath groupers, formerly known as Jewfish, grow to monumental size and were nearly wiped out in the 20th century from careless fisheries management. Goliaths congregate when they spawn and anglers would slaughter entire schools. Overfishing nearly led to extinction.
A former trophy fish, the Goliath grouper is now a protected species on the federal and state level. You can catch a Goliath, but possession and harvest of the fish illegal. The sheer weight of the fish can cause its internal organs to collapse when subject to gravity. As well, the air bladder of a grouper will expand when raised to the surface from deep water, though many Goliaths are caught in relatively shallow areas. If you catch one, try your best to release the hook while keeping the fish submerged underwater.
In practice though, a fisherman sometimes has to decide immediately on behalf of the animal's welfare whether it's better to cut the line at the leader, leaving the hook in the mouth, or to bring the fish above water in order to release the hook -- neither are easy tasks if the fish is still fighting.
And then there's a matter of photos. You're not supposed to mess with Goliaths unless you have a special license for scientific research or filming purposes. As stated on the FWC website: "The taking of photographs after removal of hooks and posing for pictures with goliaths is not considered an immediate release of the fish."
I had to ask myself: could Jeremy Wade, an angler whom I respect, who inspires many folks with his adventures -- some even consider him a mentor of sorts -- really have egregiously violated an FWC regulation on an internationally broadcast TVseries?
So I started to make a few phone calls. Again, the issue wasn't that he caught one -- that happened by accident while he was targeting a bull shark. The matter was that River Monsters broadcast the catch without footnoting or explaining the protected status of this species with greater detail. In the photo, it's obvious that the fish is above water. As well, according to an FWC staffer I spoke to who wished to remain anonymous, no one from the production team had applied for a special research or filming license.
And this from a renown angler who promotes conservation as well as catch and release. In the Goliath Tigerfish episode shot in Africa, Wade seems very remorse about an impressive specimen that perished after a fight. Wade doesn't come across as a Hemingway macho kind of angler. Behind the toughened face of this 50-something explorer, there's a sensitive conservationist.
As an angler, I can relate. The attraction to the sport is rather perverse and contradictory. Let's face it, you're basically harassing a creature that wants nothing to do with you. The fish serves no purpose unless you're going to eat it, yet you want to thank the fish because it fulfills your quest for the hunt and the story. And you certainly don't want to kill it, even though you risk a fish's life every time you cast a line in the water.
I know. That's screwed up.
Still, I expected more from Jeremy Wade. I was disappointed. And the fact that it happened in Florida, my own backyard, didn't make me happy.
|Epinephelus itajara aka Goliath Grouper. Photo by Albert Kok via Creative Commons.|
I spoke with local divers, fishing guides, scientists, historians, FWC and even Wade himself on the subject.
I also spoke to Mark Palmer, the guide who took Jeremy Wade out fishing that fateful night when Gus bit into bait that was intended for a bull shark. Palmer, a former shark fishing legend in semi-retirement, assured me everything was done by the books. "You should see my fishing team," he said. "We're like a Nascar pit stop. We catch and release very quickly. The River Monsters film crew did the same."
Throughout many conversations, fishing guides complained about divers and divers complained about anglers. I learned about political lobbies that affect commercial fisherman as well as recreational ones. Some fisherman were upset about the restrictions imposed by FWC, claiming that Goliaths are gluttonous predators who decimate populations of their prey like lobster and snapper.
A no-fishing zone in the Dry Tortugas -- a group of islands 70 miles off Key West, proves otherwise, according to scuba instructor Amy Lesh. Populations thrive without invasive species and human intervention. "The no-take zone in the Tortugas is protected marine area," she told me over the phone. "Fish live in balance. Groupers, snappers and lobsters co-exist with no one species wiping out the other. I've seen it with my own eyes."
After the phone calls, emails were exchanged with Discovery Channel and Icon Film staff (Icon Films, a production company in Bristol, England, produces River Monsters). If I were to really get into this, I'd have not one blog post but an entire book. So I'm going to try to get down to brass tacks in this already long post.
In the middle of all this mess is Gus, of course. He has no idea.
THE PLEASURE OF SPORT FISHING COMES WITH RESPONSIBILITY
Celebrity anglers like Jeremy Wade have great influence. But when something like this slides off the hook (excuse the terrible pun), he loses credibility. He certainly did lose respect from most of the divers I spoke to, although to be fair, many of them had only seen this one particular segment about Gus.
But the diving community makes a great point. Goliath groupers aren't killers. They're gentle giants. I can see why they took exception to Gus being on film, even though Wade's grouper in Florida was an accidental by-catch.
Dr. Sarah Frias Torres, a marine ecologist and biological oceanographer at the Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Fort Pierce who specializes in Goliath grouper research, spoke to me over the phone about the human story in relation to this marine megafauna. "The 1950s saw a renewed craze for Goliath fishing," she said. "People would eat grouper cheeks as a delicacy but the rest of the fish would be turned to cat food or fertilizer. Because of their size, sometimes their carcasses would be used to smuggle drugs to New York."
|Fishing practices in the past were rather appalling by today's conservation standards. But it's precisely this kind of overfishing that led to a moratorium on Goliath grouper fisheries.|
"River Monsters painted an image of the Goliath grouper being a terrible monster," she said. "But nothing could be further from the truth. They behave like friendly Golden Retriever dogs. They are curious and come to you. He was violating the 1990 moratorium on Goliath fishing by bringing it above water."
Someone as influential as Jeremy Wade has the power to teach conservation on so many levels and yet you see this:
(Since River Monsters closed its Facebook wall, links to other posts are currently unavailable. I only recorded these two screenshots.)
And to make matters worse, Blair Bunting was hired to shoot Jeremy Wade with a dummy Goliath grouper in the shallow waters off Florida. The image of Wade battling a grouper became the headline for the entire 2012 series when you are not, under any circumstances -- at least in Florida -- supposed to fight a Goliath with your bare hands above water. The photography is stunning and the process fascinating, but it's easy to see how this would offend anyone who's taking a stand for Gus.
(Read about the shoot and see the photos at Blair Bunting. Duly noted, the company -- which clearly produces amazing photography -- removed a video about the shoot out of respect to animal right's groups.)
|The visually beautiful but controversial image used in Animal Planet publicity.|
Now, even after having spoken to many impassioned divers who rightfully defend their claim of kinship with finny creatures, I was about to let this go. And one day, a source leaked a private letter to me from FWC that River Monsters had, in fact, "officially" violated the Goliath grouper regulation, although the original anonymous staffer I spoke to made no claim on behalf of the commission.
I followed up with a phone call to Katie Purcell, the Communications Relations Coordinator for the Division of Law Enforcement at FWC. "We are supportive of the show coming to Florida," she said. "We have contacted the production team with information on the regulations."
But this was after the catch. If they notice a photo of the fish online, FWC might simply slap you on the wrist with a letter. Caught with the fish in your hands, the creature dead or alive, you get a citation with a court date. The judge then determines your fine, according to FWC's Miami law enforcement office.
|The best way to photograph a Goliath. Photo via ORCA by W. Stearns.|
Jeremy Wade himself admitted to me over the phone that they could have done more to discuss the protected nature of the species. Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Icon followed suit on his statement.
Wade himself is an avid diver. After my phone rang with the 44 code from England, he told me right away that he had just returned from practice dives in a cold quarry. "I can sympathize with the diver's point of view," he said.
"We have a limit of what we can include in the show," he continued. "But I'm very glad people are concerned about welfare of all fish. Legislation has a place but people should just protect instinctively."
"No fish species should be singled out, education should be across the board for all species," he added.
Goliaths are predators, and smart ones at that, to which Wade opined. "It's good to see populations returning. Don't cull a predator. Their presence is a sign of a healthy ecosystem."
|Many lawless Floridians would take this to mean open season on a fish that is only monstrous in size.|
Is Jeremy Wade an unconscientious angler because of his hook and line encounter with Gus the Grouper? No, I do not believe he is. In fact, he may have done the Goliath a big favor by indirectly bringing the issue to light; I would encourage him to make additional statements about species conservation in Florida.
Wade's final comment: "If we get too preachy, no one would watch, but yes, in hindsight we could have added more detail about the state of the Goliath."
In spite of all the dramatic music and editing, River Monsters is still one of the best, if not the best, TV productions on sports fishing and the ethnographical as well as anthropological connections between fish and human culture. The two are inseparable.
But there's another side to this story. Were the Florida conservationists and divers justified in their assessment about Gus the Grouper being ill-treated on TV and in network publicity? Yes, they had every right to be. And I stand by that, too.
There's a good ending here, though, at least in the sense of an opportunity for education.
For one, one of the divers actually asked me to relay a message of good faith to Jeremy Wade: come to Florida and dive with the groupers. "Get to know them," she said.
And not all fishermen want to see open season on Goliath groupers. Tom McLaughlin, a fishing guide who owns Another Keeper Charters on the gulf coast of Florida, is part of a tagging and DNA study that will help us better understand Goliath behavior. McLaughlin "sells" Goliath trips -- remember, it's not illegal to catch them; it's how you handle them that matters.
The study is timely, according to McLaughlin. "Biologists don't know enough about fishing and fishermen don't know enough about biology," he said. "We are building a special raft to tag the groupers without lifting them out of the water. We will take measurements and examine stomach contents without harming the fish."
"The harvest of Goliaths should be limited by catch and geographic zone," he continued. "We don't want a repeat of the time when they were wiped out. That would be the danger of doing a full open season."
In a follow-up email, Mclaughin reminded me that Goliath laws also vary depending on jurisdiction. "It's not illegal to remove Goliath in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico if the angler deems it best for the safe hook removal or venting of the fish," he wrote. "This is not true for federal waters in the Atlantic."
WHAT YOU CAN DO
|A friend of mine took a photo of 5 ft. Goliath washed up dead by the shore of a Miami bayfront park. Cause of death unknown. Via grantstern.com.|
If a major TV corporation doesn't want to bother with educating the public thoroughly, well then it's up to individuals like myself and YOU the outdoors enthusiast reading this to be a steward of the environment. As Wade says above, "protect instinctively."
If you are going to fish in Florida or any where else on earth for that matter, make sure you understand that it's not a "free for all" in rivers or oceans. We are at a point in fisheries management where the utmost care must be taken to protect fish if we are going to indulge in the sport, let alone harvest them as food source -- and neither Jeremy Wade nor the divers would disagree with that.
Take a moment to check out the resources below to learn about wildlife regulations and Goliath groupers. And if you happen to dive near Fort Pierce Inlet, make sure you wave at every Goliath you see -- it could be Gus or one of his offspring.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Goliath Grouper Studies at Oceanographic Research Conservation Association with Dr. Torres
Marine Cleanup Initiative
Underworld Photography by Doug Kahle
Jupiter Dive Center
Jim Abernethy's Scuba Adventures
Ocean Research and Conservation Association
Restore Florida Bay