The big chill

It was the right move at the right time. It's one of those situations where you regret having to do something, but the absence of action would very likely allow the compounding of an undeniably eminent threat. The news here is snook and Florida's recent move to protect this important species.

My Jan. 9 column; summarized the problem snook have with cold weather, but in a nutshell, this subtropical species is highly sensitive to low water temperatures.

Linesiders feed like crazy each fall in hopes of surviving on their fat stores, while lying tucked away in the deep, protected waters of coastal rivers, canals and ship basins. The fish do this every winter, but Florida's recent unprecedented string of nights with freezing temperatures pushed a lot of snook well past their limit. The extended frigid spell killed a large number of inshore fish, including thousands of snook.

No species is without value, but as the state's most popular inshore gamefish, snook generate much of the sport-fishing interest and thereby account for a significant portion of revenues for Florida's guiding and bait/tackle industry. For clarity, the financial benefit of a popular species is only one piece of this. The other is the state's fundamental duty to protect and preserve its natural resources, even if they don't earn a dime.

Thankfully, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission did just that. With an executive order that took effect at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 16, the FWC extended the snook closure through September. Prior to the executive order, snook season closed Dec. 15Jan. 31 and June-Aug. on the Atlantic Coast; Dec.Feb. and MayAug. in the Gulf of Mexico, Monroe County and Everglades National Park.

The winter closure protects snook during their cold season vulnerability and the summer closure guards them during the spawning season. Licensed anglers are allowed to keep one snook a day during the spring and fall open seasons, but eliminating this year's spring harvest will give the fish a breather, while allowing the state time for thorough assessment.

The executive order also establishes temporary statewide closed seasons for bonefish and tarpon until April. Both are generally considered inedible, but licensed anglers are allowed to keep one bone and two tarpon daily. Also subtropical and highly cold sensitive, both species could become imperiled by recent weather extremes.

"A proactive, precautionary approach is warranted to preserve our valuable snook, bonefish and tarpon resources, which are among Florida's premier game fish species," FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto said. "Extending the snook closed season and temporarily closing bonefish and tarpon fishing will protect surviving snook (for the spawn) and will give our research scientists time to evaluate the extent of damage that was done to snook, bonefish and tarpon stocks during the unusual cold-weather period we recently experienced in Florida."

Another FWC executive order temporarily removes specific harvest regulations for all dead saltwater fish of any species that have died as a result of prolonged exposure to cold weather in Florida waters. It also modifies general methods of taking dead saltwater fish from Florida's shoreline and from the water to allow the collection of saltwater fish by hand, cast net, dip net or seine.

All people taking dead saltwater fish under the provisions of this order may not sell, trade or consume such fish, and the dead fish must immediately be disposed of in compliance with local safety, health and sanitation requirements for such disposal. You don't need a Florida saltwater fishing license to collect dead fish, but these temporary modifications only apply to fish that have died as a result of prolonged exposure to cold weather.

This FWC executive order also took effect at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 16 and will expire at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 1, unless it is repealed sooner or extended by subsequent order.

For more on Florida's saltwater fisheries management, visit www.myfwc.com.

Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.