PORT ST. LUCIE -- The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, meeting next week in Lakeland, is expected to decide whether to reopen the snook harvest season in the Gulf, Keys and Everglades National Park on Sept. 1 after a 3 1/2-year closure following a massive cold kill in January 2010.
FWC staffers recommend the fishery be reopened, pointing out scientific benchmarks for assessing the health of snook stocks show the fish are in good shape along both Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The study notes that juveniles in the Gulf (which were the most severely impacted by the deep freeze) — as well as the largest spawners — already are protected by the tight slot limit of 28 to 33 inches, which was adopted well before the freeze. The staff is recommending no changes in Atlantic snook rules since that stock was less affected. The East Coast fishery closed June 1 — except for catch-and-release — to protect snook during their seasonal spawn. It will reopen Sept. 1 with a one-fish bag limit and a 28-to-32-inch slot.
Meanwhile, researchers at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s Tequesta field lab have made some startling discoveries about the spawning and movements of Atlantic snook that they plan to publish shortly in the scientific journal “Marine Ecology Progress.”
According to veteran research scientist Jim Whittington, snook that spawn in spring, summer and early fall in inlets from Palm Beach to Port Canaveral do not spend as much time in actual reproduction as previously believed. Instead, they take lengthy road trips up rivers, estuaries and even Lake Okeechobee between spawning episodes.
Nearly four years of acoustic tagging data from 200 snook — attaching transmitters on fish and picking up their beeps at inshore and offshore listening stations — show they spend an average of two to three days in inlets then leave for a week to 10 days (sometimes traveling as much as 25 to 30 miles overnight) before returning to their spawning grounds. And they may repeat these movements eight or nine times during a spawning season, which lasts roughly from May until early October.
“This process of moving in and out of spawning aggregations throughout the summer must be a benefit to the overall population and we can speculate they do this in order to avoid predation, find areas that have slower current in order to regenerate for the next episode, etc., etc., etc.,” Whittington wrote in an email.
“It’s good to know there’s more fish that spawn than what you see in the inlets,” he said later. “That’s a good sign.”
His findings also have implications for anglers who enjoy catching and releasing snook during the spawning closure.
“They do not have to fight the crowds at the inlet to catch and release snook … they can find snook throughout their range and might want to try up river or some secluded spots in the lagoon … where the fishing is not as competitive among anglers,” Whittington wrote.
The scientist said studies on the Gulf Coast have yielded similar results.
And the validity of his research was underscored last week during an unrelated electro-fishing trip on the north fork of the St. Lucie River.
Whittington and colleagues Beau Yeiser and Anderson Berry idled up some narrow, muddy creeks in an aluminum skiff using twin devices on the bow of the boat that look like basketball hoops and work like cattle prods, emitting an electrical current to stun fish within an area roughly eight feet by eight feet. The researchers then scoop up snook in long-handled nets and place them in an aerated live well, leaving behind mullet, sheepshead, tarpon and other species that are not relevant. This particular outing was intended to capture snook of different sizes and ages for a fine-tuned reproductive study.
Miles inland from the salty St. Lucie Inlet, the scientists probed a remote creek littered with deadfalls and aimed their anodes at a tangled patch of Brazilian pepper and other submerged trees that had tumbled from the bank.
Instantly, three mature snook estimated at 10 to 12 pounds rolled up and splashed on the brown surface. Yeiser and Berry were able to net two of them, but a third escaped. They were the largest fish observed in four hours of electro-fishing and they were way, way upriver — no doubt spawners taking a freshwater break.