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Despite January freeze, Gulf snook season may open

The snook, with its muscled torpedo shape and telltale lateral black stripe, took such a hit during the shivering cold of January, that state wildlife officials immediately banned the taking of the tasty game fish famous for shaking hooks and snapping lines. Anglers are in disagreement about whether to keep the ban in place. One charter boat captain in Tampa says what's needed is a five-year ban. Other fishermen say the species is making a remarkable comeback since the freeze and favor lifting the ban. This week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will consider opening snook season in two weeks after closing it days after the January freeze left tens of thousands of snook dead from the cold. At a hearing Thursday in the Panhandle, commissioners will take public input about four proposals presented by biologists. If warranted, the commission could open snook season as early as Sept. 17 and leave it open until December.
Eleven straight days of freezing temperatures in January resulted in massive fish kills along the shores of the Sunshine State. That led the commission to place an emergency closure on snook season until Sept. 1, which later was extended until Sept. 16. In the Gulf, the season currently is closed from December through February and again from May through August. The idea was to protect the species during its spawning season from April to September along the Gulf coast from Hernando County south. The state-commissioned study concluded that snook along the Gulf coast suffered greater losses than Atlantic snook populations because east coast snook were able to get to deeper water and escape the cold. The shallow waters of the Gulf kept snook too close to the surface, and more died of cold, the report said. The commission will review the report at a meeting in Pensacola Beach on Thursday. Along Florida's west coast, biologists collected data from estuaries in Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor over the spring and summer. As a result, staff biologists have presented four options: Option A: Revert to the current regulations; reopen snook season Sept. 17 and close it along the Gulf coast from December through February and May through August. Option B: Extend the current ban through March 1 on the Gulf coast. With a slot limit of snook between 28 and 33 inches and a bag limit of one per person, this would protect adult fish for the rest of the year, biologists have concluded. Option C: Open snook season Sept. 17 but close it Dec. 1 along the Gulf coast. In 2011, this option would keep snook season closed until September to protect the fish during the winter and spawning months. Option D: Keep the snook season closed through the spring and summer of 2011, reopening it Sept. 1, 2011. Staff scientists are recommending Option C "to afford one more year of spawning season protection," the report said. "Staff makes this recommendation primarily based on available data indicating that the fishery was very robust going into the freeze. While there clearly were effects on the population, we believe the fishery is healthy enough to rebound and continue to grow. "The existing, restrictive harvest strategy already in place will help ensure that recovery." The brief harvest season this fall would allow biologists to collect more information on the adult population and, "it will provide some harvest opportunity for anglers." Steve Betz operates Flats And Bay Charters, taking anglers out mostly onto Tampa Bay and its estuaries. Snook are among the fish he hunts. He favors shutting down the season so the population can rebound. In fact, he would favor a five-year ban, he said. "As far as my business," he said, "I don't think I've suffered a huge impact because of it. Most of the people I get do charters from out of town, and they don't want to keep the fish they catch anyway." He tells his clients that snook have been decimated by the cold and they ask about catching other fish, such as tarpon, redfish, trout and mackerel, he said. "There are plenty of other game fish to catch," Betz said, "and they understand that. Tampa Bay has got an awesome fishery." Shutting down snook season for a few years would allow the fish to flourish, he said. "We had good numbers of snook before the freeze," Betz said. "We've had days when we could go out and catch 30 to 60 snook in just a half-day. Since the freeze, the numbers are way down. I've caught maybe 20 snook since the freeze altogether." Snook, he said, are fun to catch. "They are good fighters," Betz said. And as far as taste, "I will tell you that if I had that or grouper, I would take the snook." Rick Roberts, executive director of the Snook Foundation in Sarasota, said that an unofficial survey of snook fishermen around the state indicates that the snook population has made a tremendous rebound since January. "For the past three months, we've had people logging onto our site," he said, "and with more than 200 fishing trips logged from Tampa around the state, up to Jacksonville, people are catching snook and logging them; catching and releasing." He said it all averages out to one snook per hour, which indicates a healthy turn-around. Still, he said, "it's nowhere back to normal." The foundation has reviewed the state's options and could support any one of them, he said, but if the population is there, the state shouldn't restrict anglers. "If there's no biological reason to close it, don't close it," he said. "We've had reports from all over the state of robust numbers of fingerling snook that have hatched and are growing. It's been a great spawn." Fewer fish in the water mean more food for surviving fish, he said, and snook appear to be thriving. The freeze in January, he said, killed a third to half of the snook in the coastal waters around the state. A survey of nearly 1,800 Snook Foundation members and snook fishermen was just about split on the banning issue. The poll said that 783 favored opening the season from September to December, while 782 polled said that state should keep the season closed until next year. The real threat to the snook population, Roberts said, is the loss of the spawning habitat, like mangroves along the shoreline and sea grass flats. "We've lost more than 50 percent of nursery and juvenile fish habitat," he said, "that had existed in Florida 50 years ago." He said that snook is the most popular inshore game fish in the state. "They're one of most exciting fish you can catch with a hook," he said. "They don't quit. They're a challenge to catch and a challenge to bring to the boat. And, they are very good to eat."

Reporter Keith Morelli can be reached at (813) 259-7760.

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