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Outdoors

Decision on snook season could delay opening

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 10:54 AM

There has been considerable Internet buzz of late that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is not going to consider reopening the snook season until the day after the season is scheduled to open Sept. 1.

However, according to Jessica McCawley, the biological administrator of the Tallahassee FWC office, an executive order will be issued between now and Sept. 1 putting off the season opening until at least mid-September.

"The extension of the closure will give the commissioners a chance to hear the report on the snook kill resulting from the freeze, get public input, and then get the information on the new rule out to the public," McCawley said.

The majority of snook anglers seems to feel that the closure, put in place in the spring after the devastating winter freezes, should remain in place until at least this time next year, particularly on the west coast where the freeze hit hardest.

"By the most conservative estimate, we lost between 200,000 and 300,000 snook, maybe as much as five times that," said Ron Taylor, the state's leading snook scientist, who works at Florida Marine Research Labs in St. Petersburg. "At a minimum, we lost three years of angler harvest from the normal population."

Taylor said estimating fish populations is more art than science, but state biologists use an indexing system that provides a good idea of the relative abundance of most inshore species.

"The east coast snook did not get hurt nearly as bad as the west coast, but even over there we think mortality was 25 percent, a very significant loss," Taylor said. "We certainly lost over 30 percent on the west coast, and observers in the Everglades say it was much, much worse down there on the western portions of the park."

Charter skippers who spend a lot of time in snook country agree.

"In my area around Terra Ceia, the snook are just about gone," captain Ray Markham said. "Reds and trout came through fine, but the snook got whacked."

"There should be 500 to 1,000 fish around the mouth of the Manatee River right now, and there aren't any," captain Scott Moore added. "It's not that bad down at Charlotte Harbor or in upper Tampa Bay, but there's nowhere that the snook fishing is anything like it was before last winter."

Captain Jason Prieto, who recently fished the Port Manatee spoil island, has made similar observations.

"There are some fish just under keeper size in the special permit area, but really very few compared to what we're used to seeing in there at this time of year," he said.

Just as worrisome is what probably happened to the millions of snook that were too small to get on the radar of anglers, but were likely to be highly susceptible to the cold. Most of these juveniles winter in area creeks and rivers, normally temperate refuges, but this year even the refuges turned into death traps.

State biologists estimate that before the freeze, there were about 1.6 million snook on the Gulf coast and around 600,000 on the east coast. The bad news is that the fish on the Gulf coast rarely migrate more than a couple of miles, so areas that are out of fish now are going to remain that way for years until the natural reproduction and growth of the few surviving fish refills the void.

"If we don't take any snook at all starting right now, it will take four years for the population to get back to where it was as far as keeper-sized fish," Moore said. "And that's assuming we don't get another freeze that knocks them back even further."

Moore is a snook specialist, widely recognized for popularizing snook fishing beginning some 25 years ago with the live sardine chumming technique. He also has been one of the strongest voices for snook conservation.

"If snook had enough pressure on them years ago to drop the limit to one fish and close the season for five months a year, how can it possibly make sense to let the season reopen after the kill we had last winter?" Moore said.


To add to the discussion before the FWC meets in Pensacola next month, the e-mail address is commissioners@myfwc.com.

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