“Warsaw Grouper: the Fish, the Law, and the Feast”
By John Herrera
The Fish - Laura’s Warsaw
Laura and I dropped down on a deep Palm Beach County wreck together. As usual, we forgot about each other the moment we set sight on the wreck. I meandered down the starboard side of the deck toward the stern where I had seen a twenty-something pound cubera hovering mid-water. As I peaked over the side, I saw what looked like a gag grouper slowly swimming toward the bow where the hull met the sand. Since gags were closed to harvest, I ignored the grouper, continued aft, and found that I had lost sight of the cubera. Undeterred, I reached the stern and dropped down to the sand to take a peak at the screws in case he had hidden down there. Nothing was there, so I worked my way back forward to check out the rest of the wreck, hoping to find a cobia. What I found instead was Laura perched dead center at the top of the far side of the cargo hold clutching her shooting line near the muzzle of her gun with a speared grouper on the other end struggling to get under the starboard gunwale of the hold. The two were in a deadlock. A quick look confirmed that it was a Warsaw grouper, which were still open in Florida waters, and not a gag. Laura, understandably, did not want to give any ground lest the big fish bury itself deep inside the wreck. To make matters worse, a rope and buoy had wrapped itself around the shooting line at its midpoint. I looked into Laura’s eyes and they screamed, “Do something!” I freed her line from the buoy and focused on the fish. Laura had securely shot the fish near the top of its gill plate and down through the opposite side of its throat - nearly a stone shot. The fish was badly wounded and single-minded. After a couple of attempts, I managed to get my right hand around its throat and tried stabbing it in the brain to give Laura some slack in the line. I managed to hurt, but not kill, the fish. By that time, Laura had collected herself and took back over. I swam down to the deck where I had laid my speargun, grabbed it, looked up, and found myself alone - naturally. I took a quick survey of the area and began my ascent. I found Laura about halfway to the surface with no gun and no fish – she had already strung the fish on her stringer and lift-bagged gun, fish and stringer to the surface. I shot a lift bag on a reel to the surface to mark our position for the boat, and we began our decompression. When we hit the surface, Laura told me that she thought that there were two warsaws and that she thought that she had shot the larger fish. I guess the gag that I thought I had seen down by the sand heading in Laura’s direction may have been the smaller warsaw. Back at the dock, Laura’s fish scaled out at 52 pounds, 1 ounce - her third warsaw ever and a new personal best! As you can see from the photo, Laura wasn’t the first human that this fish had a run in with, as evidenced by the circle hook and stream of frayed heavy monofilament protruding from the corner of its mouth.
Warsaws are deep-water grouper that grow to over 400 pounds and usually inhabit depths from 250 to 1,700 feet. However, occasionally, cold, deep water will well up into the 180-220 foot depths, and we will see a few stragglers, usually averaging about 30 to 50 pounds. The bigger 100-plus pound fish almost always stay deep, even during thermoclines.
The Law - Such As It Is
Warsaws in Federal waters are managed separately by the Gulf Council and the South Atlantic Council of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Both Councils are part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
In the Federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, there has been a one-fish-per-vessel recreational bag limit since 1999. According to NMFS statistics, this management action reduced recreational landings to about 23,000 pounds-per-year from approximately 85,000 pounds-per-year in the 10 years before enactment - a 73% reduction. There is no minimum size and commercial fishermen may sell warsaws.
In the Federal waters of the South Atlantic, the sale of warsaw grouper was banned in 1994. Commercial landings averaged about 17,000 pounds-per-year in the 14 years prior to enactment. In addition, there was a one-fish-per-vessel commercial and recreational bag limit from 1994 until 2011, when all harvest of warsaws in Federal waters was summarily banned after unopposed pressure from environmentalist groups. In an even further display of excessive federal regulation, the Council also imposed this closure on all boats with Federal commercial or recreational grouper-snapper permits, even if they are fishing in state (not Federal) waters. South Atlantic Federal waters begin three miles from shore and include over 99% of the warsaw’s deep-water habitat. Southeast Florida is the only place that I am aware of in the entire South Atlantic region where it gets deep enough within three miles of shore to find even the occasional warsaw, so the Federal closure was essentially a closure of the entire Atlantic coast other than the outer edge of state waters in Southeast Florida.
Warsaw grouper are open in all Florida waters with a bag limit of one-per-boat. Fortunately, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has not moved to close the harvest of warsaws in Florida Atlantic waters to conform to the Federal closure. I hope that they have seen through the federal nonsense and/or have better things to do than try to further manage the tiny proportion of smaller warsaws that occasionally wander on to the fringe of Florida waters to be harvested by the similarly small proportion of fishermen that are skilled enough to capture such a large and powerful fish.
The South Atlantic Council’s 2011 closure of the federal water warsaw harvest is especially galling in light of its own rather contemporaneous findings with regard to the warsaw fishery. In March 2010, the WildEarth Guardians petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to have warsaw grouper listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The filing of such a petition triggers NOAA to respond with a 90-Day Finding which is, in essence, a review of the petition and existing information in the NOAA files to determine whether the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the subject species might be endangered or threatened. If it is found that there is enough evidence to credibly suggest that a reasonable threat might exist, then an additional, more comprehensive 9-month review ensues. If, however, 90-Day Finding concludes that the petition fails to meet the rather low burden of proof, then the petition is dismissed. On September 28, 2010, NOAA published its 90-Day Finding in the Federal Register finding that the WildEarth Guardians’ petition failed to warrant further investigation. The full text of the Finding presents an interesting discussion of the available science, history and regulation of the warsaw fishery and can be found at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/pdfs/fr/fr75-59690.pdf. In the Finding, NOAA rejected as unfounded the petition’s allegations of overfishing and that existing regulations were inadequate to protect the species. In fact, there is absolutely nothing in the Finding to suggest that the warsaws were under any pressure whatsoever - it was a virtually untapped fishery. Also bear in mind; these conclusions were based on the one-fish-per-vessel commercial and recreational bag limit that was in effect at the time that the Finding was issued (before the closure). Therefore, it appears that NOAA was unaware of any scientific reason to further restrict the harvest of warsaws, and nevertheless the South Atlantic Council (which is part of NOAA) went ahead and enacted the closure of the warsaw harvest that became effective four months later, choosing to ignore the conclusions of its own people. In other words, NOAA rejected a petition alleging that warsaws were endangered or threatened and simultaneously took the same measure that would have been taken if warsaws were indeed endangered or threatened: complete closure. I think that you can draw your own conclusions about the integrity of the system.
To summarize, warsaws live at such great depths that they are rarely encountered by recreational or commercial fishermen except as a by-catch. Accordingly, there is not much scientific data on warsaws because they cannot be reliably targeted by fishermen. Moreover, with the one-fish-per-vessel bag limit that been around the last 13 years, recreational fishermen have little incentive to try to target them. The warsaw harvest in both the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic has been drastically reduced over that period. Now their harvest has been virtually banned in the Atlantic. The pressure to further restrict their harvest has been political and not based on any scientific grounds or sound fisheries management. If anything, the existing restrictions should be relaxed.
The Feast - Bacon Crowned Roasted Warsaw Grouper
Like most deep-water grouper, warsaws are great eating, with large flakes of white meat and good fat content. Always gut and ice your catch as soon as possible. Warsaws are usually large fish that benefit from a total immersion in ice or brine to cool the fish’s core quickly.
Cooking a fish with such thick fillets can prove challenging in that you want to cook the fish all the way through while not overcooking and drying out the exterior of the fillet. You can always slice the fillets into thinner portions and cook them the same way that you would a smaller fish. But if you want to cook a thicker larger chunk you need to seal in the moisture prior to attempting to apply heat deep into the meat. I solve this dilemma by first searing the outside of the meat and then roasting it in an oven to completion. Here’s what I do, step by step:
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Cut the fillets into single serving portions about two inches thick and liberally apply salt and pepper.
- Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon of bacon fat to the pan. When the bacon fat has melted and is almost smoking, add the fillets to the pan, being careful not to crowd them. Sear each side of the fillet about 30 seconds until a light golden sear has begun to form. Keep turning each fillet with kitchen tongs until all sides of the fillet are seared like the first side.
- Arrange a slice of bacon on top of each fillet and put the skillet in the oven. The cooking time will vary with the thickness of the fillets. I find that 25 to 30 minutes is about right for a 2" thick fillet. You can adjust the time for thinner or thicker fillets. As the fillet cooks, the bacon bastes the fish keeping it moist and giving it flavor.
That’s all there is to it - very fast, very simple, and very good! You can do the same thing with thick fillets of cobia, amberjack, or wahoo. If you’re looking for a side dish and a wine to pair with, I would suggest some sautéed fresh spinach and a Gewürztraminer.