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Warsaw record or Goliath grouper blooper

Four Alabama anglers went from proud angling heroes to possible fish felons in a matter of a day after news and photos of their amazing giant grouper catch on June 25 generated official complaints as well as much debate on internet fishing forums.

As of press time, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) confirmed it is investigating the case, but “experts” continued to disagree over whether the men had hauled in a potential record Warsaw grouper or an illegal protected goliath while fishing on a reef 20 miles off Apalachicola.

FWC Capt. David Duval, area supervisor of the Northwest Region, told Woods ‘n Water an investigation was underway after FWC received several calls when photographs of the estimated 7-foot, 450-pound fish were printed in the Apalachicola Times and Panama City News Herald as well as circulated around the internet.

If it was in fact an illegal goliath – as many are convinced due to coloration, physical characteristics and water depth – the Alabama men, who are cooperating, appear to have made an honest mistake and have not tried to keep their catch a secret.

One angler said they consulted a fish ID book before identifying it as a Warsaw and deciding to keep it. The men posed for photos, conducted interviews and provided pictures and accounts of the trip that were eventually printed and posted online. The fish drew a crowd at the dock, as the anglers allowed numerous onlookers to take photos as it was lifted from the boat by a backhoe, before being filleted and vacuum packed to take home to Alabama and Kansas.

After a dramatic decline in numbers in the 1970-80’s, goliaths were protected in 1990, requiring they be “immediately returned to the water, free, alive and unharmed” or face a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

However, because the meat was taken home to Alabama and Kansas, the men could also be prosecuted under the “Lacey Act,” a federal law that makes it a felony to transport illegally harvested fish across state lines.

Experts have disagreed after viewing the photographs – which do not provide a clear view of the number and length of the dorsal spines. Warsaws are usually darker grey while goliaths are yellowish-green. Warsaws have a straight tail, while a goliath’s is more rounded. Warsaw are typically found much deeper (400-plus feet) than the 50-60 feet of water the men were fishing.

The world record Warsaw (436 lbs., 12 oz.) was set by Capt. Steve Haeusler out of Destin Dec. 22, 1985.Based on its length of 82 inches long and girth of 66 inches, the disputed grouper was estimated to weigh 446 lbs.

The giant grouper had multiple “piercings” (eight fishing hooks) in its lips and the men discovered a pointed stainless steel rod protruding 2-3 inches out of one side of the fish.

What they originally thought was a spear was actually a curved metal rod used by divers to string their catch while spearfishing.