Anglers in Tampa Bay will once again be allowed to keep snook, redfish and seatrout when in season starting June 1 after wildlife officials voted Thursday to end restrictions implemented after a past Red Tide bloom.
The unanimous decision by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission followed extensive feedback from guides, captains and hobbyists, who did not all agree on the wisest next move.
“I think we’ve found the right path as an interim step,” said Michael Sole, the Commission’s vice chair. “You can hear a lot of diversity in the public stakeholder position on this.”
The board backed a recommendation from agency staff, which has reported no evidence of long-term declines in the species tied directly to the Red Tide. Regulators started restrictions in 2018 and, to provide more time for recovery and research, later extended the prohibition. A previous order leaves snook, redfish and seatrout open only to catch-and-release fishing through the end of this month. Because of a seasonal closure, people will not be allowed to keep snook until September 1.
Commission leaders did not erase all limits. Snook and redfish will remain catch-and-release south from State Road 64 in Manatee County through Gordon Pass in Collier County for another year, while seatrout there can be kept under limits on quantity per boat. Some in that area worry about habitat losses, both before and because of the Red Tide.
“The emergency in my opinion still remains as a hangover from that long Red Tide with a lot of unknowns,” said Eric Sutton, executive director of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
A persistent Red Tide bloom lingered in Southwest Florida between 2017 and 2019, killing tons of fish. The subsequent limits applied from Pasco to Collier counties. Redfish, snook and seatrout are popular targets for people who fish saltwater inshore around Southwest Florida.
Captains and recreational anglers around Tampa Bay have largely supported reopening, saying the local stock appears healthy, even if longtime guides in hard-hit areas to the south, including around Blind Pass, are less optimistic about the species’ health there. More than 100 people attended virtual workshops this spring and an online survey drew about 10,000 responses, according to the Commission.
An agency staffer told the board that state researchers believe snook populations in Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor are above long-term averages, while they are near average in Sarasota Bay. Redfish, according to the agency, fell below long-term averages before the Red Tide but has been trending up. Seatrout seemed to be similarly declining before the bloom, though officials have reported recent signs of improvement around Southwest Florida and last year put in place additional regulations on catching the species.
Anglers who called into the meeting Thursday held firm to their divide, with some endorsing the proposal and others asking for a full reopening.
Capt. Ozzie Lessinger, of Captiva Island, pushed for continued limitations. “Snook and redfish both need some drastic changes so that resource is available to catch and to harvest,” he said.
Brian Rosello, identifying himself as founder of the Florida Recreational Fishing Union, called for a full repeal. “If we close the season ... for every hard freeze or every Red Tide, it will be very hard for us to get back to harvesting,” he said.
Board members vowed to return for discussions about long-term management of snook and redfish based on updated stock assessments coming out this year. The catch-and-release order south of Tampa Bay is meant to last through next May.
A few commenters said they worried the closures will cause a rush in demand on fishing in Tampa Bay.
“People from other counties would now come into Pinellas, and our fishing pressure would increase,” said Steven Creasey, of Clearwater. He knows, he said, because he has moved his fishing north to avoid the order. “I’m sure the people of Citrus County are tired of me fishing their waters to catch a redfish.”