Snook lovers work to protect stock, habitat

Published October 22, 2006

SARASOTA - Rick Roberts is a man on a mission.

"I caught my first snook when I was 5," said the 62-year-old executive director of the Snook Foundation. "The state's population has increased dramatically, and so has the fishing pressure. I want to make sure that there are still snook left to catch for future generations."

The Snook Foundation, a nonprofit conservation group based out of Mote Marine Laboratory, hopes to raise awareness about the issues threatening one of the state's most popular game fish.

Asked what he considers the most serious threats to this cruccial fishery, Roberts replied: "Habitat, habitat, habitat. I guess you could throw population growth in there, too."

Roberts and his comrades turned out en masse this weekend for what may become the state's largest catch-and-release tournament exclusively targeting Centropomus undecimalis. Chris Maulkin, who caught and released three snook to win Saturday's SnookSmart Angler IGFA Florida Snook Championship, earned a spot in next year's International Game Fish Association Rolex Inshore Championship in the Florida Keys, often referred to as the Super Bowl of flats fishing.

The proceeds from this unique tournament, which paired research biologists with anglers, go to snook research and public education. Sixty-five anglers caught and released 224 snook, four of which had been tagged previously. And one of those was a hatchery-raised snook.

"Look around wherever you go and you will see valuable snook habitat disappearing every day," Roberts said. "When local governments issue permits for dredging or sea walls they have no idea what effect their decisions will have on the future of this fishery."

To prove his point, Roberts points to Florida's east coast.

"If you look at Jupiter south, the snook habitat is gone," he said. "People do not catch snook over there like they do here."

Florida's west coast still has plenty of mangrove shoreline - the ideal nursery ground for fingerling snook.

"On this coast, we have plenty of big snook out there," he said. "But the problem is we don't have as many juveniles as we should. That doesn't paint a very good picture for the future."

In 1995, Florida officials issued roughly 150,000 snook stamps. But 10 years later, the number of snook anglers went to 223,000.

"The state hasn't gotten any bigger," Roberts said. "In fact, we have lost a lot of habitat in the time period."

Last year, west coast anglers made 1.4-million trips for snook, more than four times that of their east coast counterparts.

"That is an incredible amount of fishing pressure," he said. "If we are not careful, we could end up like California, where most of the native fisheries have collapsed, and now all the sport fish have to be stocked."

The Snook Foundation's primary emphasis now is on education, Roberts said. "We need to teach the average angler how to properly handle and release snook," he said. "We also want snook anglers to learn more about local issues, so when their local government considers the next permit application, they can be there to inform them how it will impact snook habitat."

Roberts said the Snook Foundation will hold four catch-and-release snook tournaments in 2007, with another IGFA-sanctioned championship in the fall. But anglers don't have to wait to help preserve snook fisheries.

If everyone who fishes for snook paid the Snook Foundation's $15 membership fee, Roberts' organization could launch a statewide education campaign. "That would be enough money to solve a lot of our problems," he said.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com or 727 893-8808. To learn more, go to snookfoundation.org