The Goliath Grouper
The Goliath Grouper is one of the larger species of fish that you'll see while scuba diving Key West or other Atlantic dive spots. Once referred to as the jewfish, the term was changed by National Marine Fisheries in 2001 due to its offensive connotations. It has been caught from Maine to Brazil, on the Portuguese-owned Azores islands, and on the African coast between Congo and Senegal. The grouper can grow up to six feet long, and has the unique ability to camouflage itself by making its color darker or lighter as it moves up and down in the water column.
Goliath groupers have an interesting natural history. The young spend their time in estuaries, mangrove swamps and other brackish waters, where they enjoy protection until sexual maturity. Goliath groupers are believed to be hermaphrodites, like many of their cousin species. Many grouper species begin their time as females and become male after a number of years. However, this has never been verified for the goliath.
It used to be believed that the species existed in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. However, a genetic analysis done in 2008 showed that as similar as they look, they are in fact two distinct species. It is believed that the two species began to split apart by the continental creation of Panama about 3.5 million years ago.
A glimpse at this predatory fish is a rare treat, as they currently have endangered species status. The same docile, curious nature that makes this a fun fish to dive with has led to mass decline at the hands of spear fishermen. The fact that they tend to arrive in large spawning groups to the same grounds every year has made them even easier prey. Because of their behavior, a large size and great flavor, they were nearly fished to extinction by the late 1980s. They have since been protected, by the US in 1990 and the Caribbean in 1993.