Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Gus the Grouper: More Than Just A Fish: Interview with Jeremy Wade

The third and final part of a series on angling and conservation in Florida focused on the Goliath Grouper. Inspired by Jeremy Wade’s by-catch at Fort Pierce Inlet, which was broadcast on River Monsters, the series looks at many different ways of interpreting this fish and its relationship to human interests. Click here for all posts labeled “gus the grouper.”

A magnificent Goliath photographed by master underwater photographer Doug Kahle.


"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.


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 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.


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."

But Torres admitted she had seen other River Monster episodes. "I'm not against fisherfolk and I think Jeremy Wade is doing a great job of delivering a conservation message," she continued. "It's just that something was wrong in this particular segment."

And there's the rub. TV networks and production companies should espouse serious corporate responsibility in airing wildlife programming. Now, as a small fry filmmaker myself, I know a money shot when I see one and understand the pressure of location scouting, scheduling and other challenging logistics, but there are the consequences to what ends up on the editing table.  I do think this comes down to an ethical decision.

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."


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


Terry Ginis said...

I will keep my comment short and sweet-so to speak. First-Jeremy Wade has done more for fish conservation in the last three years than anyone else that comes to mind. Secondly, the catching of the grouper was pure chance (as was the one in Australia)and I believe that Jeremy used that moment to discuss this fish, which is rarely seen by most of us. He is very sensitive to local laws and customs in his traveles around the world-and as a "non-Floridian" I must say that there was a lot of over reaction on the part of officials and some of the public. In retrospect, I'm sure they would have just dumped the footage if they had know there would be such a fuss over...basically nothing. Fish caught by accident, released back to it's ocean home, no harm done-case closed.I wouldn't blame he or Icon if they skipped the sunshine state next time they want a tropical location-afterall, there are plenty of places that would love to accommodate him.

Maria de los Angeles said...

Dear Terry,

Thanks so much for stopping by and I appreciate that you took the time to comment.

However, we will have to agree to disagree. I think I stated the issue quite clearly and as Wade told me himself, more could have been done. I am sure that if someone committed a violation in your Ohio rivers you would feel the same as you are also passionate about environment and nature. I don't see how we are over-reacting when a fish was nearly put to extinction and a moratorium on fishing was set in 1990. I'm really surprised you would say that, knowing how concerned you are for animal welfare.

There is no doubt that Wade has done a great deal for conservation, which I state in my post. But there are many others doing so as well, including individuals like myself. Conservation is a daily process by individuals -- in fact, I can't even think of a better project than the Marine Cleanup Initiative conducted by the diver who identified the grouper.

I must reiterate what I stated in the post -- the issue was not the by-catch, it was how "corporate" handled communications regarding regulation in public broadcast. I could not have been clearer in my statement. This was not a post to downplay Wade's efforts.

As far as Florida is concerned, my post was not about what Icon Films decides to do in the future; however, I don't see how any fishing program could gloss over the one state in the country that affords so much salt, fresh and brackish water fishing and boasts one the only Everglades on the planet. The income generated from fishing and fishing-related tourism in Florida is staggering. Hence why it is SO important that Florida be represented properly by someone with so much positive influence as Wade.

I can't be certain but perhaps the only reason River Monsters hasn't done a segment in the Glades is because there is no human habitation or fish legends in the area.

Again, thank you Terry for your time.

Christy said...


Great conclusion to the Gus story. I am so glad you were able to get your interview - hopefully you can do the follow up when he heads back there. Sounds like all involved from the RM end have responded and reacted positively to the questions and inquiries. I just wish it had been something they addressed in post production. Valuable lessons learned all around. Great piece!


Terry Ginis said...

Thank you for your kind words, Maria. Of interest to some is Jeremy's new book "River Monsters Abandoned" which is set for release on October 11, 2012. You can pre-order on Amazon.com for $13.95, in paperback. More great stories and I'm sure more insite into the world of a world-class angler. I'm planning on saving it to read on the plane on my way to Guyana to do some back river fishing-but not promising I can wait to read it!

Anonymous said...

I believe that is not a new book but simply the paperback version of the UK release. The UK hardcover and that pending paperback have the same sub title "A tale of obsession, adventure, and very big fish..." Looks like they are using some of Jeremy's own sketches for the paperback cover. He has said he does not foresee much time for writing in the near future - which is unfortunate.

Terry Ginis said...

A side note to "anonymous", Jeremy's first book was already in paperback-this is a new book called "River Monsters Abandoned" and will be issued in paperback for $13.95 on October 11. You can check it out on the Amazon.com website if you need further proof. He actually said that he wanted to do "more" writing after the show is over....I heard that firsthand.

Christy said...

Hi Maria - I follow Hell's Bay on Twitter/FB. (I think they were involved in one of Wade's recent FL excursions) - I saw this and thought of you. Another Florida connection to a fish Jeremy Wade has caught - the Sawfish. Of note is the disclaimer at the front of the clip warning about the restrictions about handling them.

Also, that next book is the UK paperback. I had sent an email asking about it a while back. Unfortunately, it's not a new book.

Maria de los Angeles said...

Hi Christy ... did Wade catch a sawfish in the Glades or was that only in Australia?

Sawfish are indeed protected here. There is a tagging program. They're not really monsters though ... I mean, I've never heard of any indigenous stories regarding them (our Seminole Indians weren't even from here originally) and I've never heard of any attacks since no one swims in the Glades.

Hell's Bay is an incredible place to fish though. It's a labyrinth of brackish and fresh water back there, hence the name. Better bring your GPS or go with a good guide. I might go fishing there next month!

Terry Ginis said...

Hello again Maria-I must make a correction to a comment I made. I was talking this morning to Jeremy's secretary and she told me that the paperback that I spoke about is actually a UK version of last year's book. She was also confused as to why there was a different title-as was I (obviously), but I was thinking it was the publisher's idea since it is a different one from the American version. In any case I wanted to clear that up-I admit when I've made a mistake...and also my apologies to "annonymous"!

Anonymous said...

Hi Maria

I'm an angler and fellow fan of River Monsters. Being from the where Mr. Wade encounted Gus, I was eagerly awaiting episode most of all. Much to my surprise, I was let down when the grouper was caught. Yes, Mr. wade did release Gus to his watery home but with all anglers, we must follow established protocols and regulations if we are to become protectors of the meek for future generations, regardless of our station in life.

I'll be blunt; I'm not here to kiss Mr. Wade's ass or Icon film and even Animal Planet, for which they have greatly earned my contempt in the mindless programming of late and with the mishandling of the issue on what to do about poor Gus. Perhaps Animal Planet should change their slogon to Animal Planet..Surprisingly Inhumane.

I'm sure at the time of Gus's capture on film, Mr. Wade may not have been aware of the regulation in the state towards handling goliaths, which is very understandable. Mr. Wade did seemed to be apperhensive about entering the deeper edge of the river to correctly retrieve and release Gus. I'll give the man that much at least.

One of the divers who did post on the River Monsters Facebook page made a very good point; in the eyes of his fans, Mr. Wade is highly looked upon, and with that his actions are often duplicated. I agree there was not much said in the episode to deter others from capturing their own goliath, and Animal Planet was only adding fuel to the fire by posting the video on how to catch a goliath grouper.

I would like to make simple suggestion to Mr. Wade, perhaps while researching fish for up-coming trips, it may be best to research any endangered fish species which may be inhabiting the area, should this happen again.

I would like to note in the Russian episode; again Mr. Wade was unaware of the fishing regulation regarding sturgeon. Thankfully, Mr. Wade was not caught with his line in the water. If anything, the catching of Gus could be seen as a good thing to a degree. How many of us knew about the goliaths' status in the wild or even being on any list at all? In 1990 the goliath was added to the endangered species list by the help of a humble spear fishermen, who at the time saw it right to push for protection. As time went on, many people seem to have forgotten that the goliath was even on the list and continued to fish for the goliath. Now another fishermen as brought the fish to the light again to remind us of our impact on such wonderful creatures of the darken deep.

Maria de los Angeles said...

Hi Terry and anonymous, thanks for the update. Looks like it's just simple rebranding/repackaging. I do like the new vintage look on the cover.

Anonymous #2 : thanks for your comment and thoughts on Gus.

Maria de los Angeles said...

By the way, everyone, the fella who named Gus just won an Oceana Heroes Award for his cleanup efforts in the area.