The Common Snook in Florida: How They Could Save Florida's Coastal Habitat
by Brett Fitzgerald
Maybe this has happened to you: after paddling deeper into the mangroves than ever before, you get the feeling you have finally found a slice of Florida that is truly pristine— or at least not seen by human eyes for decades or more. You portage across sand and oyster bars, monkey-crawl through some minuscule mangrove creeks, randomly select another opening across a hidden bay to explore, round the last corner and... Huh? Who the heck is that guy???
Who would be so deep into the "bush" at this morning hour? Fifty years ago, he might have been an outlaw, hiding a whiskey still (or worse). Twenty years ago, it might have been a gill-netter. It's still possible to see those characters today, but chances are if you happen across someone alone in the coastal waters of Florida, they are fishing— quite possibly for snook.
Snook are a unique fish in Florida. They are a truly tropical game fish, which limits their range to the southern half of the peninsula. They inhabit the freshest lakes to the deep offshore reefs. The variety of habitat they use is matched only by the variety of anglers that can't seem to get the mysterious fish out of their forebrains— the parking lot at a snook fishing lecture might find a swamp buggy parked next to a brand new Mercedes. But for the avid snook fans, there is a common thread: they understand that for snook to survive in Florida, quality habitat is required.
The snook has become Florida's most popular game fish for several reasons. They fight like the devil, with strength and acrobatics that rival any inshore fish. They are highly prized as table fare. They are pretty visible, yet can be extremely difficult (and frustrating) to catch.
Centropomus undecimalis translates loosely to "stinging cover, uninterrupted." The stinging cover reference is well understood to those that have felt the razor-sharp gill plates that have made a mockery of many fishing lines. And the "uninterrupted" part of the name refers to the signature lateral line that runs down the side of the snook. Most fish have some form of a lateral line, which is used to sense pressure and sound.
Snook are linked to so many habitats, that they have been recognized as a perfect "indicator species" for the overall health of Florida's coastal ecosystem. The Florida Audubon Society selected the snook as their canary-in-the-coalmine for South Florida. Although snook can be seen under just about any salty or brackish dock light in the southern half of the Florida Peninsula, they are rare enough to be labeled as a "species of special concern," because their population is so sensitive to such a variety of threats. Water temperature is one of the biggest threats— once water dips below 60 degrees, snook really begin to struggle. A few more degrees (depending on how fast it drops) can kill them. Red tide is another snook killer. Habitat loss and fishing pressure round out the most obvious threats, and since snook actively feed throughout their very predictable spawning season they are particularly vulnerable. This is why there is a closed summer season.
Snook spawn during different times throughout the summer, generally at the passes and inlets that dot the coast of the peninsula. The actual spawning event usually occurs during an outgoing tide, and the fertilized eggs drift passively with the outgoing current. With some luck, they are swept back in when the tide turns —maybe the same pass, maybe an adjacent estuary— and they ride the tide all the way back to the "salinity barrier" of an estuary.
Many inshore fish use the tides to transport their fertilized eggs, called zygotes. Although unable to actively swim horizontally at this life stage, some zygotes can shift their buoyancy, rising high in a water column during a specific tide to maximize the current. When the tide switches direction, they might sink to the bottom, taking advantage of the "baffle effect" that sea grasses and other structures have on moving water, holding them in place until the tide reverses once again.
In the case of snook, it might take days to weeks for the little critter to make it as far as the mangrove fringe. By then, it can actively swim, and it heads even deeper into the estuary. It might be a year before the juvenile snook typically venture all the way back to the salty side of the mangrove edge. After this point, a snook can be over eight inches long. Snook of this size might pass between seagrass and mangroves, alternately looking for a meal and trying not to become one. Snook don't have much of a defense against predators in open water, so good hiding grounds are essential for young-of-year snook to survive. Even though smaller snook are preyed on, they are already learning how to bully the other little critters. Snook have small teeth somewhat like a freshwater bass, but their large mouth will suck in surprisingly large meals.
Once a snook is a few years old, they are much less picky about the quality of habitat. There are requirements, such as moving (tidal) water and structure, but adult snook are likely to be found almost anywhere those two criteria are met— private and public docks, bridges, oyster bars, offshore wrecks and reefs, and nearshore hard bottom reefs are a few of the typical haunts of the big gals. The structure doesn't have to be what we traditionally think of, either. As long as the water flow is interrupted, and there is a hiding spot or eddy for the snook to relax and wait for a free meal, they will take advantage. Grass flats often have a "hole," or bald spot where there is no grass and the water is a smidge deeper. This is enough for a big snook to settle down, look up, and wait...
Although not picky about the quality of habitat, adult snook do follow general patterns of movement throughout the year. During the summer, most (but not all) of the adult population is lingering around the passes and inlets. They generally hunt the beaches, mangroves, and sea grasses that are within a mile or so of their spawning site. During the fall, snook transition back inside. They are found scattered along the Intracoastal Waterway, canals and major river mouths, lurking around structure and feeding on the prevailing forage.
Winter is a critical season for snook. As a tropical fish, they are very intolerant of cold water. Most fish run far into coastal rivers and hide in the dark, deep holes where water temperatures are less affected by each passing cold front. Some snook head the opposite direction, seeking refuge in deep offshore water. When a particularly cold front passes through, those fish that are trapped on the flats or other open water can die by the thousands. This winter had its share of chilly weather, and there were some reported "cold kills." After the last front passes and spring begins to warm the waters again, snook begin the transition back to the inlets and passes, and might be found anywhere along the way, just as they did in the fall.
The overall population of snook in Florida is just a fraction of what our great-grandfathers might have found. Many people think the population was decimated mostly by gill netting, which was made illegal in coastal Florida during the '80's. While the netting obviously had a detrimental affect on the population of fish, there are plenty of other factors in play. The history of depletion goes back much farther than that.
In the 1930's, snook were already popular with traveling sportsmen. By then, there were already publications lamenting the declining population, recalling the "good ol' days," when snook were more plentiful. Writers were already concerned about the future of the species, fearing they might eventually be fished to extinction. Luckily for snook, the next decade led to a decreased popularity for a reason that might seem ridiculous to most contemporary snook fans: they had a reputation of being of "very poor food quality." This was probably due to the common practice at the time of leaving the skin on the fish when cooking it. Evidently, this added a "soapy" flavor to the fish, and it fell out of favor with the public. But the ease in pressure wasn't to last.
Since snook are so predictable in their seasonal migrations, it was very easy to net large quantities of snook during the summer spawn. When the supply exceeded the demand, they were churned into cat food, and sold for the whopping price of 2.5 cents per pound! By the '50's, the population was strained enough so that size limits and bag limits were introduced.
Today, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) estimates that around 3 million adult snook live in Florida. Considering there are around 1.7 million snook fishing trips a year, one can understand why there is such a tight bag limit for snook. Truly, most anglers recognize the benefit of releasing snook and try their hardest to send them back unharmed. Just seeing a big snook on the flats can burn a memory that outshines any fish dinner! But as time passes, fishing pressure is no longer the biggest threat to snook in Florida. One word has bumped the rod and reel off the "most threatening" list: Habitat.
It's a good thing adult snook aren't picky about habitat quality, because the juvenile snook are very particular. Unfortunately, they require the habitat that has garnered the most attention from developers in Florida. When pitted against money hungry developers, snook have lost almost every battle. FWC surveys have indicated that over 50% of effective juvenile snook habitat has disappeared over the past 50 years. As entire estuary systems are dredged, cemented, straightened, and otherwise urbanized, they can become completely useless as a snook nursery.
These habitats are not only used by snook. Literally hundreds of other critters —fish, shrimp, crabs, and others— need this critical real estate. Several offshore game fish spend a portion of their young life in the same waters— snapper and grouper included.
The loss of this habitat has a direct impact on the snook population. This is why the snook has been considered an "indicator species." If the snook are disappearing due to habitat loss, plenty of other marine species are also directly impacted. Thankfully, there are plenty of folks that have recognized this significance before the door completely closes on Florida's natural coastal playground.
Plenty of individuals, clubs, scientists and biologists, organizations, and even local municipalities have taken an interest in conserving what is left, and restoring as much lost habitat as possible. Every mangrove planting, every river clean-up, every sea grass restoration project contributes to the overall success of our vastly interconnected ecosystems in Florida.
Brett Fitzgerald is the Regional Director (SouthEast) of the Snook Foundation. An avid photographer and expert fisherman, Brett is a contributing editor to Florida Sportsman Magazine and we welcome him to our pages! Brett serves special needs children in Palm Beach County public schools. He served in the United States Army in both Intelligence and as a paratrooper with Special Forces Operations. Brett attended University of South Florida, and holds a Bachelor's and a Masters degree in Communications Sciences and Disorders. He is an expert guitar player and fly tyer.
The Snook Foundation was founded in 1998 by Mr. William R. Mote, who had established the now world-renowned Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota Florida in 1967. We would like to share with you their vision as posted on their website, http://www.snookfoundation.org:
We believe that a brighter future for all fisheries resources, including snook, is in the hands of informed anglers, who will take proactive steps to increase, not just maintain, the stocks. The instruments for such action are members who will commit to achieving snook habitat protection, enlightened regulation, research, and education. We believe that, with the recent progress in stock enhancement and habitat research, along with improved understanding and protection of effective snook habitat, together we can dramatically improve the outlook for snook and snook fishing!
Photo Credits— The Snook Foundation, Brett Fitzgerald, Gordon Snyder.