Snook fish
© Stacey Lynn Brown
Thousands of dead snook are belly up on the surface in the Tampa Bay area and around the southern half of Florida, with hundreds more still floating up off the bottom along both coasts as the thermometer rises.

"If you went around and looked at some of these fish, you would cry," said Capt. Scott Moore of Anna Maria.

The coldest water temperatures in Tampa Bay since 1989 took a heavy toll on the tropical snook, which died when the water stayed in the low 50s and upper 40s for 10 straight days.

"It's as bad as I've ever seen it, and it's the coldest water temperature for that long a period as I've ever seen," Moore said. "In my canal, it got as low as 45 degrees. There's not one snook in my canal that's alive."

In response, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued an executive order Friday closing the spring snook season in March and April, meaning the game fish widely prized by flats fishermen can't be kept until Sept. 1 after the summer spawn. And the FWC said the closure could be extended beyond September.

Ron Taylor, Florida's foremost expert on snook biology, said it's possible that this snook kill could turn out to be as severe as 1989, when 500,000 snook died statewide during a Christmas freeze.

But Friday, Taylor tempered his estimates while waiting for the full impact to register sometime this week.

"It seems to be a moderate kill, right now," said Taylor, estimating the loss of 10,000 snook in Tampa Bay.

"We'll know more about it after this thing has warmed up for a couple of days and the fish come to the surface," said Taylor, a fishery biologist at the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

This is Florida's third major cold-related snook kill dating to 1977, when an estimated 1 million snook died during a mid-January freeze. The week and a half of extreme cold also killed large numbers of bonefish, catfish, jacks, ladyfish, mullet, pompano, sand perch and tarpon, stunned more than 3,000 sea turtles, and frost-bit mangrove trees from Central Florida to the Keys.

It is the most significant overall fish-kill since the devastating red tide outbreak along the central Gulf Coast in 2005, a warm-weather event that decimated the trout population throughout lower Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay.

"I think this snook kill is going to be far more reaching than the red tide we had a couple of years ago," said Capt. Jason Lineberger of Tampa.

Snook, whose northern range is generally Interstate 4, begin to suffer when the water drops below 57 degrees. They can recover when warmed by the sun after a single cold front, but there was no respite this time.

"This cold killed more snook than the red tide in Tampa Bay, there's no doubt in my mind," Moore said.

The FWC executive order, issued by FWC Commissioner Rodney Barreto, also closed bonefish and tarpon fishing until April.

"The bonefish took quite a whack down in the Keys, definitely in the thousands," said Aaron Adams, senior scientist with Mote Marine Lab.

A "truckload" of tarpon taht were between 3 1/2 and 4 feet long were found dead near the St. Lucie Power Plant, according to the Miami Herald.

Fishing captains in Tampa Bay and across the state who surveyed the damage have been reporting on the Snook Foundation Web site.

"Thousands upon thousands of fish have not survived," said Rick Roberts, executive director of the Snook Foundation.

But Taylor said estimates aren't pointing as high as 1989, when 60,000 snook were lost in Tampa Bay and half a million statewide. And it's not nearly as severe as 1977.

"Yes, some snook did die. But it's nowhere near like 1977, when I can remember canals just solid with snook," he said.

Taylor's estimate that 10,000 snook had died in the Tampa Bay area represents about 5 percent of the population and equals one season's catch by fishermen. But a lot of those snook were between 30 and 40 inches long.

Far more snook died in Charlotte Harbor than Tampa Bay, Taylor said.

"It seems to be that the Charlotte Harbor area took the greatest hit on this coast. Why? I can only assume because of the shallowness of that area," Taylor said. "It looks like that number might be as high as 30,000.

"In the north region, Tampa Bay and Clearwater, about 10,000 at the most. But the bigger portion of that 10,000 are keeper-lunker size than in Charlotte Harbor, which seemed to have more 16 to 24 inches," he said.

Taylor also said about 15,000 snook died between St. Lucie and Melbourne.

But snook were killed as far south as Florida Bay.

Most of the snook have been spotted in canals and marina basins where they typically go to seek refuge from the cold.

Moore said he counted 150 dead snook in the Holmes Beach Basin, where captains dock their boats.

Capt. Shawn Crawford of Lakeland found dead snook up to 40 inches Thursday in canals off the Manatee River and in the back bays of Sarasota Bay.

"I've seen more big ones than small ones," Crawford said. "The good thing is, I'm still seeing live ones, so hopefully we'll stay on a warming trend and they'll be OK."

Moore said snook had retreated 25 miles up the Manatee River to the dam at Lake Manatee.

In upper Tampa Bay, Capt. Jason Lineberger said snook up to 25 pounds were dead.

"There was a bad, bad snook kill up at Double Branch," Lineberger said. "The little snook are making it. It's the big ones that are dead. It's sad."

Lineberger fished Sunday, and the water was 49 degrees at 10 a.m. There was ice on his boat all day.

"There's a good chance it got down to 46, 47 degrees at night," Lineberger said.

With air temperatures in Polk County near freezing or in the 20s for 10 of 11 days below from Jan. 3-13, including 23 degrees in Lakeland, the water temperature on the flats in Tampa Bay remained in the upper 40s Jan. 10-12. By comparison, the temperature of water released into North Carolina's Nantahala River from the bottom of Lake Nantahala for whitewater rafting is 45 degrees.

"I can't remember a duration of cold weather for this long. I don't remember the water temperature being 46 at Clearwater, either," said Larry Mastry at Mastry's Tackle in St. Petersburg, a lifelong Floridian.

Wednesday was the first day since Jan. 2 that the air temperature reached 60 degrees.

Many other species of inshore saltwater fish large and small died in the Tampa Bay region - baitfish including greenbacks and pinfish, catfish, jacks, jewfish, ladyfish, mullet, pompano and puffers. But redfish and trout endured the cold.

"I did not see one dead trout or one dead redfish," Moore said.

Lineberger even saw grouper and mangrove snapper washed up on the beach south of Clearwater. The near-shore Gulf temperature dipped to 51 degrees, pushing most grouper 25 to 30 miles out for water between 55 and 60 degrees.

Also reported around the state:

Two 30-pound permit were found floating near the Sunshine Skyway, Lineberger said.

Several hundred snook died in creeks at Flamingo, said Capt. Rich Smith on the Snook Foundation site.

Hundreds of snook were killed along the Intercoastal in Brevard County, said Capt. Keith Mixon of Lakeland.

There was a major ladyfish kill off the Wabasso Causeway near Sebastian Inlet, said Steve Parsons at Wabasso Bait and Tackle.

Statewide, fishing came to a near standstill for a week, except for snook poaching. It is illegal to net or gig snook that are stunned by the cold.

The Bocanut Telegraph in Boca Grande reported that officers charged a 24-year-old man with having 19 half-frozen snook on Monday.

"There's no way these officers can cover all this water," Moore said. "I know darn well they were writing tickets.

"The bottom line is, when you have an event like this, and the governor has called this a natural disaster, they should have a contingency plan to keep people off the water at night. That's the only time they're going to be able to do that and get away with it."