Photo by Oranse Taylor/Flickr CC
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When I was about 11 years old, my father began to take me to the Fort Pierce inlet beach in Florida, where the surf is rough and the fish are big and meaty. I learned to net schools of mullet and rake for sand fleas for bait. It was here that I learned about snook, a devious species of shore fish distinguishable by its silver scales and a pronounced black stripe running from its gills to its tail.
Snook are prized game fish because of their powerful fights; they are described as "largemouth bass on steroids." Once hooked on a line, snook immediately swim toward the sharpest surface, tangle the line in mangrove, or attempt to cut the line with their razor sharp gill plates. Snook differs from other more popular sport fish like tarpon and marlin in that they are also a celebrated table fish. If an angler is lucky enough to reel a snook to shore, the large fish should be filleted so that their skin, covered in stunning silver scales, is removed from the flesh. If cooked with the skin on, the meat will develop an unpleasant soapy taste. It is a white fish, with meat that's heavier than a trout's but lighter than a swordfish steak's, and it has excellent flavor, in part due to its diet of crustaceans and other smaller fish.
Snook's status on the Florida legislature's protected species list, however, prevents them from ever entering fish markets and grocery stores. Only "snookers" and their friends and family have access to their fillets. But is it ever environmentally decent to consume a protected species?
During the fall and in March when snook fishing is permitted, there are strict size limits and gear restrictions, and a person may only harvest one snook per day.
Snook is one of approximately 2,200 animal species, including 700 fish species, that inhabit the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile long region of central Florida's East coast that is known as the most biologically diverse estuary in North America. The five ocean inlets that allow for the exchange of water between rivers and the Atlantic provide world-class fishing conditions. But the Indian River Lagoon Watershed is subject to the same environmental assaults affecting coastal ecosystems: man-made hydrologic changes, non-point source pollution, direct habitat loss, and invasive exotic species.
For these reasons, combined with years of commercial and recreational over-harvesting, the snook population steadily decreased; and in 1957, the Florida legislature prohibited the commercial capture and sale of snook. There are also strict regulations for the recreational fishing of snook, and an individual must obtain a snook permit in addition to a saltwater license in order to fish them. Currently, it is illegal for a person to kill, harvest, or have in his or her possession any snook for the majority of the year. During the fall and in March when snook fishing is permitted, there are strict size limits (the fish must be between 28 and 32 inches in total length) and gear restrictions (nets, traps, spears, gang hooks, multiple hooks, and snatch hooks are prohibited), and a person may only harvest one snook per day.
Occasionally, people break these protection laws--and pay for their transgression. But in general, defiance is taboo among snookers. State authorities take violations seriously, and most fishermen feel ethically responsible to uphold the law out of respect for the snook as a valuable game fish. As Captain Fred Everson, a fishing guide from Bahia Beach Marina in Ruskin, Florida writes in Land Big Fish, a blog for fishing enthusiasts:
Nobody needs to kill two snook a day [...] Snook are too important to be a regular part of somebody's diet. A snook is far too valuable as a game fish to supplement anyone's food budget. A complete angler will kill a fish now and then eat it. But with snook, this should be done only on special, rare occasions, because snook are very special fish.
Indeed, according to angler interviews conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 90 percent of snook that are caught are released alive. As snookers maintain this admiration for the species and reverence to the law, the occasional enjoyment of a snook fillet can be an acceptable culinary treat, even for the environmentally scrupulous.