After a humungous 350-pound (approx. 159-kilogram) fish was caught by a fisherman off the coast of Florida, experts made an astounding discovery—the fish was estimated to be half a century old.
Fisherman Jason Boyll and a group of men laid claim to the impressive catch using the hook-and-line fishing method. Boyll celebrated his catch by posting on social media, “What a way to end 2019!”
On Jan. 10, 2020, the FWC Fish & Wildlife Research Institute took to Facebook to promote Boyll’s reeling in of the “big old fish.” They posted a photo of the trophy fish towering over Boyll, who stands grinning, proudly, beside his catch.
“This 350-lb Warsaw grouper was caught by hook-and-line on December 29th 2019, off Southwest Florida in 600 ft of water,” FWC wrote. “Biologists from FWRI’s Age & Growth Lab estimated the age of this fish at 50 years old, making this the oldest sample collected for our ageing program.”
Warsaw groupers are dark reddish-brown or brownish-gray fish with a distinctive squared-off tail, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Juveniles often have white spots on their bodies, and their diet includes crabs, shrimp, and smaller fish.
Warsaw groupers—Latin name Epinephelus nigritus—are characterized by an elongated second dorsal spine and are the only fish in the grouper family that have 10 dorsal spines; others have 11.
Adult Warsaw groupers usually reside in depths of 180 to 1,700 feet beneath sea level. If these fish are going to be caught, it is usually the juveniles. FWC noted that “juveniles are occasionally seen around jetties and shallow-water reefs in the northern Gulf.”
Following the grouper’s age estimation, FWC posted an update on social media explaining that acquiring the otolith (or “earstone”)—hard structures located behind the brain of bony fishes—from this fish was “extremely valuable.”
Otoliths help fish to hear, orient themselves, and keep balance, the FWC notes on its website. Marine biologists are able to estimate a fish’s age from details in the growth structure of the otolith by counting the opaque zones, called annuli, just as the rings within a tree stump are counted to determine its age. Such otolith samples from larger and older fish, the experts said, are hard to come by.
There is good reason for the Warsaw grouper’s scarcity; they were identified as a “species of concern” back in 1997, reports the NOAA, and as of 2020 are considered “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Fishing and bycatch-release mortality are responsible for the vulnerable species’ population decline.
“Fishing is primarily by hook and line and the species is caught incidentally in the deepwater snapper/grouper commercial fishery,” said the NOAA, adding that almost all of the catch is in the Gulf of Mexico.
While recreational and commercial fishing for the Warsaw grouper is regulated in the south Atlantic—one fish per vessel per trip—in the Gulf of Mexico, the limit applies to the recreational sector only.
Keen to discourage others from attempting to rival Boyll’s epic catch, FWC posted on Facebook, forewarning fellow fishermen that the Warsaw grouper’s exact population status in the Gulf of Mexico remains unknown.
According to Sport Fishing Mag, the largest Warsaw grouper ever caught in the Gulf of Mexico was reeled in by a young man named Steve Haeusler on Dec. 22, 1985. The fish weighed in at 436 pounds, 12 ounces (approx. 198 kg).