Snook are a popular game fish in the Everglades, prized for their fighting abilities and good taste. Statistics note 40 percent of fishermen trolling there at a given time are specifically targeting snook.
The fish are clearly a hallmark of the area’s tourism industry and important to protecting the local fishing economy. There is little predictability of snook production levels for those who depend on the fishing trade for their livelihoods, but researchers at Florida International University are looking to change that.
“It’s a really interesting fish,” said Ross Boucek, doctoral student in the Department of Biological Sciences at FIU and leader of a research project backed by the Everglades Foundation. “They’re very fast runners and they’re hard to fool. They grow to a big size, but their downfall is that they taste good.”
The tropical fish, like others, evolved to spawn in conditions that are fairly constant. But since there are seasonal changes in Everglades’ rainfall, they’ve developed strategies to compensate for the variability. When it’s time to spawn, Florida snook migrate to coastal wetlands where their eggs will be carried by high current flows.
So there is an important relationship between successful snook spawning and water flows, but scientists can’t yet describe exactly what the relationship is. “In terms of population dynamics and reproductive biology, it’s one of the most well-known fish, but there’s still not a lot known,” said Boucek.
By looking at where and when snook spawn, it’s possible to gain a better sense of their reproductive efforts, says Boucek, and he has a hypothesis that higher seasonal rainfalls yield better flows and spawning for snook. He’s testing the idea by combining rainfall data gathered from several local sources with tracking data from transmitters implanted in snook.
“With snook being a harvested fish, we lose about 50 percent (of those tagged) each year to fishing or natural mortality,” said Boucek.
Snook generally spawn in the region from May through November each year, but actually knowing when they migrate provides a much more precise time frame for when they’re spawning, Boucek says.
Boucek has some expectations for the investigation that is set to run through 2017. With a wet season that starts early it may be possible to maximize spawning efforts early and minimize time that snook spend in spawning areas. Those years should be the ones producing the most snook.
“The ultimate goal is to use spawning rates and relate them to angler catch records,” said Boucek. He’s getting them from local partners like Southernmost Bass Anglers and the Gene Doyle Fishing Tournament. “If we can pinpoint these wet season years, we can predict good and bad fishing years. Then we can make that data available to fishing guides and tour guides.”
Those predictions could help give some stability to the recreational fishing industry, but the research as a whole will also help inform implementation of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan that will likely have impacts on many economically important fish in the region.