Florida wildlife officials have extended the current closed season for snook until September after a record cold snap killed many of the popular game fish.
The move, announced Friday by wildlife officials, is a proactive one.
"We are moving to do as much protection as possible until we can do an assessment," said Gary Morse, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It'll take us a while to do an assessment."
Snook season was to open in the Gulf of Mexico on March 1 and close again May through August. In the Atlantic, the season was to open Feb. 1 and close again June through August.
Morse said this is the first time a season has been canceled in the agency's 10-year history.
The FWC also issued an executive order that establishes temporary statewide closed seasons for bonefish and tarpon until April.
Tropical fish are especially susceptible to the cold weather. For snook, the Tampa Bay area is the northernmost part of their habitat, so temperatures are often colder.
Scientists will spend the next several months trying to assess what damage has been done to the population, Morse said.
But already, there have been plenty of disturbing signs.
Dead fish have been spotted along gulf shorelines all week. More are expected to rise to the surface as the water warms.
Fishing guide Jim Huddleston, who mainly fishes the area around Palm Harbor and Clearwater, has been out on the water the past three days.
"I saw well over 500 snook dead," he said Friday. "I've yet to see a live one."
Snook is a popular game fish because it puts up a good fight and is considered good table fare.
"It's one of those species that's very valuable," Morse said.
Huddleston said he has plenty of customers who plan vacations around snook fishing and don't want to be bothered with catching any other fish.
In the warm months, at least half of his charters are for snook, he said.
Huddleston said it's hard to tell at this point what the impact may be on his business.
"I'm sure it's definitely going to affect us somehow," he said.
Huddleston said he wouldn't be surprised if the closed season has to be extended further into the fall, based on what he and other fishermen have seen during the past several days.
"I know there's going to be some mixed feelings on it," he said. "I think it's something that probably needs to be done. There's just no stock."