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Fate of Florida's snook season enters choppy waters

State researchers have not estimated the number of snook killed by the cold in 2010, but anecdotal evidence suggest it might be in the tens of thousands. Though some guides will take a financial hit, they are urging the state to keep the closure in place for 2010.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

State researchers have not estimated the number of snook killed by the cold in 2010, but anecdotal evidence suggest it might be in the tens of thousands. Though some guides will take a financial hit, they are urging the state to keep the closure in place for 2010.

Scott Moore started fishing the south shore of Tampa Bay in 1960.

In the decades that followed, the 57-year-old Holmes Beach resident built a reputation as one of the top fishing guides in the state and an expert in the habits and haunts of Centropomus undecimalis, also known as the common snook.

Anglers traveled from all over the world to fish with Moore, often booking the charter boat captain a year in advance. But for the first time in his near 40-year career, the fishing guide is worried about his future.

"January's freezes wiped out 90 percent of the snook down here in Manatee County," he said. "It is going to take the stocks years to recover. We have to proceed very carefully if we ever want to have a local fishery again."

In January, just days after tens of thousands of snook began washing up on the state's shorelines, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission temporarily extended the closed seasons for snook statewide until Sept. 1.

That emergency measure was subsequently extended through Sept. 16 to give state fishery managers time to address the issue at next week's FWC meeting at Pensacola Beach.

"I am afraid they will reopen the season," said Moore, who stands to suffer financially if snook remain off limits through the end of the year. "I wish we could fish for them again, but they are in such bad shape, I just don't think they could handle the angling pressure."

Historic fish kill

Ron Taylor, the state's snook guru, has been studying the fabled Florida linesider for as nearly as long as Moore has been fishing for them.

"We will never know the actual number of snook killed last winter," said Taylor, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. "It was bad, but there have been worse."

Taylor said the 2010 fish kill was not as bad as one that occurred in 1977 — when it snowed in Miami — but it was worse than one that happened in 1989, an event still relatively fresh in many anglers' minds.

The difference, however, between 1977 and 2010 is the number of anglers that now target snook. An exact figure is unavailable — the saltwater license law did not take effect until 1990 — but most experts agree the increase in angling pressure has been dramatic.

Rhett Morris, another local fishing guide, wrote to the FWC urging its commissioners to keep the season closed even though it may hurt his business in the short term.

"It's not rocket science," Morris wrote. "For every snook that is killed in the spring harvest, hundreds of millions of eggs will never make it. … They are far too important to catch only once."

East coast, west coast

Before the freeze of 2010, Florida had about 1.7 million snook, according to FWC researchers. About 500,000 lived in the state's Atlantic waters, while 1.2 million snook lived in the state's Gulf of Mexico waters, said Luiz Barbieri, Marine Fisheries Research Section Leader for the FWC.

"We will have a better idea of the true impact of the freeze when the next stock assessment is due in the latter part of 2011," he said. "Until then, we would really just be guessing."

Snook anglers typically harvest about 40,000 fish annually on Florida's east coast and take 115,000 a year out of the gulf, he said.

"Snook were in pretty good shape, thanks to the management measures of the past decade," he said, referring to tightening the slot limit and lowering the bag limit, among other things. "The population might have a little cushioning to help it handle an event like this."

Snook on Florida's east coast, where the fish can flee to warm pockets of deep water that are close to shore, may have weathered the freeze better than their counterparts in southwest Florida, where the water tends to be more shallow and turns deadly cold more quickly.

One option is to manage the two snook populations separately. For example, fishery managers could open the season in the Atlantic and keep it closed in the gulf, but such a move could raise issues of equity.

Another option would keep snook off-limits for the rest of the year and reopen the fishery in the Atlantic on Feb. 1 and the gulf on March 1.

A third option — open snook season Sept. 17, shut it down in December and keep it closed through August 2011 to protect the spawning population — has the backing of the FWC staff.

But it is the fourth option that has the backing of many local fishing guides.

The snook stamp

Moore, Morris and others want the state to keep people from catching and killing snook for at least the next 12 months.

"It will take that long, if not longer, for the stocks to recover," Moore said.

But the veteran fishing guide said he believes state officials will open the season for 10 weeks this fall just to make money.

In July 2010, the price of an annual snook stamp went from $2 to $10. Based on past sales of about 150,000 stamps, that could net the state as much as $1.5 million if the 2010 fall snook held. The money is used for snook research and management.

"I hate to say it, but I think this thing is all about the money," Moore said.

Barbieri, the state's point man on most fishery issues, disagreed.

"Whatever happens in Pensacola, there will be money available for snook research to continue," he said.

Snook season on the agenda

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is scheduled to meet Sept. 1-3 at the Hilton Pensacola Beach Gulf Front Resort. It is open to the public. For information, go to MyFWC.com.

Fate of Florida's snook season enters choppy waters 08/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 27, 2010 8:14am]

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