Cold forces end to inshore gamefish harvest

By Mike Readling The unprecedented cold temperatures that sent shivers up the spines of South Floridians in early January did a lot more than provide intriguing video of chilled iguanas falling out of trees. Waters from the Keys north absorbed the more than a week of blistering north winds and temperatures dropped to levels not seen in recent memory. The result was a fish kill that choked up waterways with bloated fish carcasses across the state. In South Florida the major victims of this kill were snook, tarpon, snapper, lookdowns, catfish and black drum. The threshold for these tropical species is right around the 55-degree mark. Once the water temperatures dips below that number, the fish become lethargic, cold-stunned and eventually die. Inshore waters in Palm Beach County were measured at 51 degrees during the cold event. Realizing the effects the weather had on the inshore gamefish population, the Florida Wildlife Commission made the unprecedented move of closing the harvest of snook, bonefish and tarpon less than a week after the cold weather abated. The closure was ordered on Jan. 14 and went into effect at midnight of that day. It extended the closed season on snook until September. Snook season would have opened on Feb. 1 on the East Coast. Tarpon and bonefish are closed for harvest until April 1. The swift reaction by the FWC took many anglers by surprise and the organization released a statement two days later clarifying the rules simply regard the harvest of these species. Catch and release is still permitted. It is estimated that more than 1.5 million snook alone died during the week of cold weather. Snook Foundation executive director Rick Roberts said now is the time for Florida’s anglers to band together to ensure that state authorities get an accurate count. Otherwise, he said, unproven and archaic formulas will be used and there is a high probability that stricter guidelines regarding the harvest of fish will be implemented. “Unless the sleeping giant that is the recreational fishing community acts to demand protection for shrinking habitat in Florida, they can expect to experience a significant drop in the fishery,” Roberts said. The Snook Foundation immediately implemented the Angler’s Action Plan. It is designed to gather real information from anglers across the state, including number of fish, size of fish and the general location where a fish was caught. These numbers, Roberts said, will be more accurate than any other figures the state has ever received and will allow anglers to lobby for regulations that are more consistent with the actual state of the environment. The FWC has also been busy assessing and closing offshore fisheries, though that closure had nothing to do with the cold weather. The commission stepped in a shut down the recreational and commercial harvest of shallow-water groupers, including gag, black and red grouper, rock hind coney, graysby, yellowfin, yellowmouth and tiger grouper. The closure, which runs from Jan. 19 through April 30 in the Atlantic Ocean and Monroe County state water (inside of 3 miles from shore), was implemented due to what the FWC determined was overfishing. The new rules fall in line with regulations in federal waters and also decrease the aggregate bag limit from five to three grouper per boat, require the use of a dehooking device and established a zero bag limit for captains and crew of charter boats. The new rules re likely to be felt in local restaurants where grouper was a mainstay on the menu. They will also severely limit the local charter boats in the Palm Beach County area. Many of those boats rely on grouper fishing to sustain their business through the winter and have reefs they have targeted for years marked with the best grouper spots. More information on the Angler’s Action Plan can be found on the Snook Foundation Web site, www.snookfoundation.org.
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