If nothing is done by the state by Aug. 31, snook will be free for the taking. / news-press.com file photo
Snook facts and figures
• There are four species of snook that inhabit Florida waters: common snook, fat snook, swordspine snook, and tarpon snook.
• Snook are protandric hermaphrodites and change sex from male to female. The actual cause of the change is not known, but research may provide an answer.
• Besides preying on small fish, snook also feed on shrimp, crabs and mollusks.
• In 2009, anglers landed a total of 222,885 fish statewide. Forty-nine percent of snook landed in 2009 were made on the east coast, and 51 percent were made on the Gulf side.
• The 2009 total landings of snook were 47 percent lower than the average landings in the previous five years (2004-2008) and were 57 percent lower than the 1982–2009 historical average landings. Landings on the Gulf coast reached peaks in 1988, 1992, 1993, 1997, 2004-2005 averaging about 76,000 fish landed annually.
SOURCE: Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission
Randall Marsh, a local flats boat captain, doesn’t want to see snook on anyone’s dinner plate anytime soon.
Marsh is one of many local fisherman who want Florida to keep snook fisheries closed for at least another year. The reason? To allow the fish population to continue to increase after a freeze that wiped out hundreds of thousands of the popular sport fish.
On Aug. 31, the two-year ban on the harvest of snook will expire unless the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission elects to extend the ban, which encompasses Monroe County, Everglades National Park and the entire Gulf Coast.
“It would be a horrible idea to open it back up,” Marsh said. “We lost the whole middle size of fish — the 22- to 28-inchers. They used to be a dime a dozen.”
A petition is being circulated among charter boat captains and casual fishermen aiming to keep the fishery closed.
The common snook is one of Florida’s most popular game fish, which, like manatees, can die from exposure to cold. Adult snook can go belly up when water temperatures drop below 55 degrees. While common snook range from the coastal mid-Atlantic United States to Brazil, including the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, the center of abundance is coastal Florida.
After the freezes of 2010, the FWC banned snook harvesting for a year. It was then extended in 2011. Unlike past freezes, where snook populations rebounded quickly, FWC officials worried a loss of habitat and more people fishing would take longer for the species to recover.
Amanda Nalley, spokeswoman for FWC’s division of marine fisheries management, said snook harvesting reopened along the east coast last year.
“They looked at the numbers and saw that they didn’t rebound as much as on the east coast,” she said. “Staff doesn’t know yet what they’re going to recommend to the commission. A stock assessment is being conducted now and should be complete in about a month. Once we have that in, then we’ll know how to proceed.”
Nalley said the numbers were collected from seine netting in estuaries around the state as well as from asking anglers as they came off charters and related fishing excursions.
Marsh said FWC doesn’t need a study and flats fishermen will tell them all they need to know.
“The numbers just aren’t the same. The days of catching 20 or 30 of them aren’t here yet,” he said. “I’d even support extending the ban another two or three years. It’s not going to hurt anyone. You’re just not going to put them on people’s plates for a while.”
But there are opponents to the ban who believe snook are in fine shape.
“I think they should open snook fishing,” said Karl Wickstrom, founder and editor of Florida Sportsman magazine.
Wickstrom said because harvest limits for snook were low, at one per day, fishing for the species should not be harmful.
“The stocks are doing extremely well,” he said. “When you have that tiny of a bag limit, the take is inconsequential. The total population is in good shape.”
Wickstrom said only bad things can come from continuing the ban.
“If you turn everything into catch-and-release then the animal rights people are going to ask why we are trying to hurt these fish,” he said.
Extension of the ban won’t have the same effect on fishermen here as similar bans have had on commercial fishermen in the Northeast, said Mickey Melchiondo, who operates his own fishing charters in Key West and New Hope, Pa., when he’s not playing guitar for the rock group Ween.
“Most of the fisheries-management stories from the Northeast have very unhappy endings with a lot of fisherman being put out of work in an already tough economy,” he said. “All with the exception of the striped bass moratorium of the 1980s. The striper went from the brink of extinction to the record numbers that we are enjoying today. Unfortunately we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past with overfishing, overharvesting, and illegal netting practices,” Melchiondo said.
Commercial snook fishing was banned by the Legislature in 1957.
Local bans on trout and redfish have worked much like the striper, Marsh said.
“Just a few years ago, an 18- or 19-inch trout was big. Now it’s the norm,” he said. “You never saw 30-inchers, at least not on this coast.”
The illegal harvest of snook is a second-degree misdemeanor and can carry maximum penalties of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine per count.
Bans also exist on the harvest of goliath grouper, bonefish, large and smalltooth sawfish, manta and spotted eagle rays and more than two dozen breeds of shark. Black sea bass, which had been off-limits for harvesting since last fall in Atlantic federal waters, will reopen June 1.