NAPLES — For all the Gulf of Mexico anglers that were hoping to bring home a snook for grill this year once the recreational season was set to reopen on the West Coast of Florida in September, there is some bad news.
You’ll have to wait another year.
At last week’s meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the recreational season for one of the state’s favorite gamefish was kept closed in the Gulf of Mexico after the results of the latest stock assessment were presented.
The commission cited the unusually cold winter in 2010 that caused massive fish kills along the Gulf as the primary reason for the continued closure. Snook were already the most heavily regulated gamefish in Florida. The fish were only available a few months of the year and had to be within a slot length of 28 to 33 inches. A special endorsement, commonly referred to as a “snook stamp” must also be purchased along with a saltwater fishing license.
“Snook are one of the most valuable assets that we have here in Florida, especially in Naples and South Florida. They need all the help they can get,” said captain Kevin Merritt, who runs Naples Backcountry Charters.
The decision has been met with mixed reactions from local anglers, who understand the need to protect the snook fishery but have seen considerable anecdotal evidence that the population has been making a nice rebound. Part of the reason for that is the belief held by many who feel the initial freeze wasn’t as catastrophic in this part of the state — especially near the Everglades and Rookery Bay fisheries — than it was to the north.
“I just went out with a charter today and we caught three or four fish that would have been keepers, and we saw several more that were good size,” said captain Matt Maloney, who operate Naples Backwater Fishing Charters. “We are definitely seeing a lot of the big females, so they are there.”
“I feel like I have been catching a lot of fish that were spawned after the freeze,” Merritt said. “A lot of juveniles. I can definitely see a lack of fish in the size range that would have been affected by the freeze.”
“I was for the closure, and personally I believe it should be closed at least a couple more years beyond this since most fish that spawned since the freeze will take at least five to seven years to reach the growth rate to put them out of the slot,” said captain Ray Markham, who operates charters around Tampa Bay. “I believe where I am the fish could have been decimated by at least 75 percent of what we had, which were numbers at an all-time high.”
“If we have a bad winter this year, we will benefit from this caution. If we don’t have a bad winter, we will let all these breeding fish come through the slot,” FWC vice chairman Kenneth Wright said following the initial ruling. “We’ll really have done something good and we’ll have protected some of these fish.”
The recreational harvest of snook in the Gulf of Mexico is now set to reopen on Sept. 1, 2013. The season on the Atlantic side of the state will remain unchanged, however, since the latest assessment found that populations were stable. Annual closures in the Atlantic are from Dec. 15 through Jan. 31 and from June 1 through Aug. 31. The next assessment is due in 2015.