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Florida Snook Line Up for a Comeback

After devastating freeze in 2010, state works to replenish populations

Florida Snook Line Up for a Comeback
Florida Snook Line Up for a Comeback

Please click HERE for the Florida Snook Comeback photo gallery.

Less than two weeks was all it took to decimate a fish population that took a half century of protective legislation to rebuild.

After years of commercial and recreational harvest, the Florida snook population was in decline, but when the state granted gamefish status to the species in 1957, effectively eliminating commercial harvest and introducing restrictions based on mandated population guidelines, the snook populations began to flourish.

Over the next 50 or so years, populations were established and snook became the state’s most popular inshore gamefish, surpassing the more common spotted sea trout. But that all changed during a 12-day stint of cold weather in January 2010, when the state suffered one of the largest die-offs in history.

The original mortality estimates from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) were as high as 50 percent of the overall snook populations along the Gulf Coast and Everglades National Park.

Snook are a tropical species that suffer when water temperatures drop below 57 degrees. They become lethargic and start to die off if exposed to cold temperatures for prolonged periods.

During the January 2010 cold spurt, water temperatures were in the 40s and 50s for at least 12 consecutive days. Massive fish kills were reported throughout Florida waters, and snook population estimates suggest anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the snook on Florida’s Gulf Coast (including Everglades National Park) perished.

Florida East Coast snook mortality estimates are closer to 25 to 40 percent, a figure many scientists and anglers attribute to more deep water and offshore snook populations in that region.

For Captain Ozzie Fischer of Captiva, Fla., the winter freeze had an immediate impact on his 2010 springtime charters.

East Coast snook
harvest opens Sept. 1

After receiving a staff report that suggested that snook on Florida’s Atlantic coast were less impacted by the effects of the 2010 winter freeze than Gulf Coast snook, the FWC opted in June to reopen snook harvest season September 1, 2011 in Atlantic waters, including Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River. The regular daily bag limit will be one snook per harvester per day with a 28-32-inch total length slot limit.

Harvest of snook in all of Florida’s Gulf of Mexico, Everglades National Park and Monroe County (Florida Keys) is prohibited in all state and federal waters through August 31, 2012. The closure is designed to allow the snook population in these areas additional time to rebound while a full stock assessment is completed. Catch and release of snook in all Florida state and federal waters is still permitted.

“During the months of April and May, I fish every day and would typically catch around 2,000 snook, but in that period of 2010, I caught eight,” Fisher said. “Most of those fish would be juveniles, and those fish just aren’t even there anymore. We have to build an entire new snook population on the West Coast.”

Fischer, who believes snook numbers dropped 80 percent in his region, says that almost two years later the fish are starting to make a comeback. But now, he said, the small concentrated populations of spawning size fish are getting so much angling pressure it’s hampering the ability of the fish to breed.

“The problem is that the fish are only in a couple of spots, so now we have six or seven boats working one small school of fish,” he said. “The small amount of fish we have now are getting a lot of catch-and-release pressure.”

On Florida’s East Coast, Captain Ken Hudson of Palm Beach fishes for snook year-round out of the Stuart area, including during the summer closure months when the fish are protected from harvest as they gather in the inlets to spawn. Hudson estimates that the 2011 population is down 50 to 60 percent from what he typically sees.

“We have some nice schools of fish, but they’re less than half the size of what we typically see in Stuart during the summer spawn,” Hudson said. “Around this inlet there’s five or six good schools of fish with the average fish above the 28- to 32-inch slot size limit. We’re still catching fish over 25 pounds on a regular basis, only we catch one or two now, instead of seven or eight.”

Hudson spent last week filming a snook fishing episode for Bill Dance Saltwater, which airs on the Outdoor Channel. They averaged 20 to 25 fish per day, but it took two days of filming to catch a fish over 25 pounds. Two years ago, Dance caught a fish that size in the first hour.

While Hudson still rates the East Coast snook fishing as good, he is seeing a lot of pressure impacting the fish. The noticeable demise of the snook populations has contributed to many Gulf Coast Florida guides targeting other species like spotted seatrout, redfish, flounder, tarpon and permit. That’s increased the fishing pressure on a lot of those species and helped take some of the pressure off snook.

“We’re not seeing any real big fish anymore and nowhere near the numbers to make a successful day on the water, so most of the guides are doing a little snook fishing then turning to the other inshore species to fill out their day,” Fischer said. “That’s certainly taking some of the pressure off the population right now. I would guess it’s going to take six or eight years to get the West Coast snook population back where it was.”

In Florida waters, snook are usually open to harvest during the months of March, April, September, October and November on the West Coast, and March-May and September-December 14 on the East Coast. In 2010, the FWC did not open the spring snook season on either coast, but did open the fall season.

This June, the FWC opted to allow harvest during the fall season on Florida’s East Coast, but to keep the West Coast harvest closed through August 2012 when a full stock assessment is expected.

Harvest of snook has been closed on statewide since December 15, 2010 as the FWC scrambles to put together enough scientific data for an updated statewide stock assessment on the species. The FWC is trying to maintain a 40 percent Spawning Potential Ratio (SPR), which means at least 40 percent of the spawning population survives annually to repopulate the species.

Prior to 2010, the FWC achieved that goal by limiting anglers to a one fish per person bag limit with a 28-32 inch slot limit (27-32) on Florida’s West Coast.

“At this time, the current status of the snook population is unknown,” wrote Carli Segelson, Media Relations Coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, in an e-mail interview. “However, FWC staff are currently working on a comprehensive snook stock assessment. The stock assessment is progressing as planned and should be available by spring of 2012.”

The FWC’s SPR goal will require some strict management policies over the next several years as the individual populations on both coasts rebuild. Some anglers worry that opening one side of the state to harvest may increase the overall pressure on the species as anglers looking to catch a fish or two for the table cross the state to take advantage of the open season.

“We’re already seeing an increase in West Coast anglers and guides coming to the Indian River (East Coast) to fish for snook in the closed season,” said Capt. Ed Zyak of Stuart. “I have charters booked for the open season in September that are from West Coast anglers looking to catch and keep a snook. So it will increase the pressure on our fishery.”

How that increased pressure will affect the East Coast is anyone’s guess, but likely a subject to be covered in the snook stock assessment this coming spring. That’s when Florida inshore anglers will learn the health of the fish population and the fate of a fishery that just two year’s ago was one of Florida’s most popular inshore gamefish.

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