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Dead goliath grouper found in Cape Coral canal

By Staff | Mar 2, 2016

A pair of anglers hoping for some catch-and-release snook hooked into something a whole lot bigger last Tuesday morning – a 400-plus pound fish carcass they wrested into their 13-foot boat to illustrate the impact of the area’s water quality issue.

Daniel Arnendariz and Sam Harmon were boating down the Everest Canal toward the river when they spotted the goliath grouper floating in the canal about halfway down the waterway.

“We were fishing last night at about 1 o’clock in the morning and stumbled on him,” said Arnendariz, a Cape resident who often fishes the canal and the Caloosahatchee at the Midpoint Memorial Bridge. “We thought it was a mantee from its size.”

When they saw the side fins, though, they knew immediately it was a goliath grouper – a relatively fresh, but still very dead, goliath grouper.

Figuring the state might want to figure out what, if anything, in the water killed the goliath, the largest of the grouper family and a protected species since 1990, they towed the massive fish to the boat ramp. They then tied ropes around both their waists to haul it up so they could get it in the boat. When it was loaded, they took the fish to Harmon’s aunt’s house on the Everest Canal, winched the fish up by the boat lift, and called the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“It probably exceeded the weight limit,” joked Arnendariz of the fish that turned out to be little more than 5 feet shorter than their small, center console fishing boat. “It took us an hour and a half just to get it over the side of the dock.”

Harmon’s aunt and uncle, Mary and Patrick Mulcahy, agreed it was one big fish.

“This thing is surreal, this amazing creature,” Mary said as she watched an FWC biologist take his samples from the fish now lying on her dock Tuesday afternoon.

“It gave me a heart attack in the morning,” Patrick said, laughing as he shared his reaction upon seeing it hanging near his boat. “This is like a dinosaur, prehistoric.”

Jami Williams, a biological scientist with the agency who came out to take the samples, said it’s too soon to tell what killed the fish, which likely had been dead for 24-48 hours as of 2 p.m. Tuesday.

After taking it down from the winch, Williams measured it – it was 88 inches long – took a portion of the gills, the brain and an “otolith,” or “ear bone,” to determine the goliath’s age. The ear bone, sometimes called an “earstone,” contains rings, sort of like those found in a tree, Williams said. From that, FWC can determine the age of the fish.

According to the FWC Web site, goliath grouper are a long-lived fish, living 35-plus years.

“However, some scientists estimate that these fish may have the ability to live over 50 or even 100 years,” the site states.

Williams said he did not know how long it would take to determine the cause of death for this particular grouper.

“It depends on how backed up they are,” he said, adding the agency will do toxicology and other tests.

Pending test results, Williams could not say if the death was related to anything in the water or water quality.

Water quality has again become an issue in the wake of a recent water release from Lake Okeechobee that flowed through the Caloosahatchee and its watershed into the Gulf waters off Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach.

Lee County officials and environmentalists statewide are working to prevent additional discharges from Lake O. Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki, Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane and Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson are currently in Washington, D.C. hoping to get continued co-operation on the federal level to send more of the discharges – needed to protect the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake O when water levels get too high – south instead of west.

Although the test results as to what killed the grouper are pending, Arnendariz and Harmon have some strong opinions concerning local water quality.

“The reason we did this was to show how bad the water is,” Arnendariz said of hauling the fish in and calling the FWC. “We figured it’s a real eye opener on how bad it is out here on the water.”

In addition to the grouper, the two said they spotted a dead snook of about 30 inches and a number of other species Tuesday morning.

“We’ve been fishing a lot and we’ve noticed a lot of dead fish,” Arnendariz said. “I’m an unhappy fisherman. They need to stop the Lake Okeechobee runoff, I can tell you that.”

Harmon took a similar view.

“I would advise people to not eat fish out of these waters now,” he said bluntly.