Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Should snook season be re-opened on the Gulf coast of Florida?

For the readers who may not be familiar with snook and recent events in Florida, I will provide a bit of background. Snook are warm water inshore gamefish found in South Florida and throughout the Caribbean. Because of their tropical nature, snook, in particular Florida populations, are vulnerable to cold temperatures brought on by severe cold fronts. These severe weather events in Florida can cause statewide snook mortalities, often devastating the fishery. In 2010, one of the strongest cold fronts in 80 years swept through Florida, killing 80% of the snook on the Gulf coast.  The catastrophic losses to the fishery prompted resource managers to temporally close the spring and fall recreational harvest seasons.

 Hundreds of dead snook floating within the Flamingo basin in Everglades National Park

Three and half years have passed since the closure, anglers are catching lots of snook, and the fishery still remains no-take.   Resource managers are now deciding whether or not to re-open snook season this fall.  Thus, the question remains, should they?

My opinion is no.

Re-opening snook season now may have lasting impacts on the fishery, largely due to the current absence of big spawning snook. Data show that the cold front had disproportionately strong impacts on small juvenile snook (under 12 inches) and more importantly large sexually mature adults that exceeded the slot limit.

Dozens of big breeding snook that perished during the 2010 cold front

It takes at least four to five years from the time a snook is hatched to grow to slot size. So, fish that were born in the summer of 2010 may be just big enough to be kept this fall.  If snook season opens now, no snook spawned after the freeze will be able to reach the heavily depleted breeding stock without the chance of being harvested.  Not only could this slow the recovery of snook , but may make catching a slot size or over slot snook on the gulf coast even more of a rare occurrence. Therefore, I think the benefit of waiting a couple extra years to re-open snook season in order to re-charge the breeding stock outweighs the cost of not being able to keep them.  However, guides that are losing business from the closure understandably may have different opinions.

The 2010 cold front was one of the worst in 80 years. Because of its unprecedented severity, we do not know not how long it will take for the fishery to fully recover. Nor do we know whether there maybe  unintended consequences from opening the season pre-maturely.  Given that the fishery is still extremely valuable as catch and release only, it may be best to lean on the side of caution. 

It seems like FWC’s recommendation will be to re-open the season, which is discussed in the interview with Dr. Whittington from FWC in the Miami Herald (see link below).  So it is likely that the season will re-open.

State managers are meeting this week to make their final decision, so we should know what the status of the season is some time very soon.



  1. I wholly agree, Dr Boucek; its better to give the current snook juveniles a chance to reach spawning size. Else its cutting the branch we're sitting on.

  2. Hi Martes, thank you for commenting. Great to hear that you agree! It is a bummer that snook grow so slowly. I really think being patient will pay off in the long run.

  3. Interesting post Ross. I have no opinion either way, but it is clear from my stakeholder interviews that people are quite divided on this question, and it is a hot topic for sure. However, my understanding was that the stock assessment found they can be reopened to harvest in the Gulf, and that is why FWC recommended it to open?

  4. Hi Chelsey,

    It is certainly a hot topic indeed! Not only with the public but with research groups as well. One possible reason for this divide both with anglers and researchers is that not all snook populations were impacted equally by the cold front. For instance, regions that do not have deep water refugia or areas that are hydrologically connected to very shallow marshes like the Everglades, had higher losses of snook.

    Because of these differences in morality rates and subsequent recovery of snook across the state, possibly the best course of action would have been to develop spatially explicit management strategies. Maybe something like having each county develop their own regulations regarding snook harvest.

    A few researchers from University of Florida pushed for this new type of management but it didnt go through. There are obviously logistical and enforcement issues with this type of management. However, this topic deserves its own blog post!


  5. SPR was recently measured at almost 58 percent for Gulf Coast snook. That sounds pretty encouraging. After speaking with a couple folks at the state, it sounds like many more of the slot- and over-slot snook were displaced to some unusual areas rather than killed. They say they're seeing much higher numbers in the last two years in traditional areas. That also sounds good. What are your thoughts?

    Just going off of this: http://myfwc.com/media/2573521/snook-2013.pdf

  6. Hello,

    So the displacement you are referring to is I believe what some are calling the snook resiliency hypothesis (i.e. post cold front snook just stayed in these thermal refugia and licked their wounds for a while). FWC has data showing that in fact some snook did do this on the east coast. However, I think that for a significant proportion of the population to sit in these refugia for a long time is unlikely for 2 reasons.

    1) In many warm water refugia or any refuge habitat, food is pretty scarce, such that the resources available couldn't support large snook populations for very long.

    2) If indeed larger than normal numbers of snook were in these deep water refugia then we would expect the anglers that fish these places like bridge anglers to have had a spectacular fishing year in 2010. However, I have not heard any stories that bridge fishing was any better than other places following the freeze. I fished some reefs (a possible thermal refuge) in the 2010 summer and we caught less snook than we have ever had.

    To the next point. The SPR or spawning potential ratio is the metric that the state uses to determine whether the fishery is over fished. When the total numbers of snook are stable, this metric is great! However, following large naturally caused population declines like what happened in 2010, the SPR may not be the best metric for assessing the stock. This is discussed on page 9 the public report below.


    So what I think the changes in the SPR more reflected the differences in moralities between juveniles and adults, where adults were less impacted than juveniles.
    Thanks for commenting, I really enjoying thinking about these points today!

  7. Where did you get the 80% population kill figure? I read a 15% estimate from FWC. Thats a rather large difference.

  8. Adams et al. 2012 report a 96-97% reduction in apparent survival of snook and a 41 – 75% decrease in snook abundance following the cold front. This study was conducted on snook spawning aggregations off of Pine Island Sound


    Osborne et al. ( pg 89 figure report an 80-90% reduction in angler catches in the Everglades National Park.


    Boucek and Rehage 2013 reference an 80% decline in the relative abundance of snook in back country rivers of the Everglades National Park (official report will be available on the United States Geological Survey website soon, please ask if you would like me to send it to you)


    MRFSS reductions in angler catches are slightly lower (approximately 62 % in Lee and Charlotte County, and 60% Pasco and Sarasota county see figure 4.5.1; pg 154)


    Total landings of snook on the Gulf coast decreased by 67-78% as well (pg 7).