Mote Marine Laboratory scientists released approximately 450 juvenile snook into Phillippi Creek on Tuesday, June 13, for ongoing studies of habitat-use patterns of these important sportfish.

The fish were raised at Mote Aquaculture Research Park (MAP) and fitted with PIT tags (passive integrated transponders), which will be detected when the snook swim near solar-powered antenna arrays installed at eight creek-front properties. Study results are intended to help inform resource managers and the community to help support snook populations into the future.

By releasing the fish into Philippi Creek, Mote scientists are examining how much time the fish spend near seawalls without vegetation, seawalls with vegetation or natural shoreline sites. The scientists want to know whether or not snook reside in natural habitats longer or disperse more quickly from seawalls with no vegetation than seawalls with vegetation. One of the goals is to provide this information to homeowners so that they can make fish-friendly decisions with their shorelines.

A major goal of Mote’s Fisheries Ecology & Enhancement Program is developing responsible guidelines to release hatchery-reared snook into the wild to help keep the population sustainable. By understanding what snook need — including quality habitat — Mote scientists are working toward that goal.

“So far, our data from Phillippi Creek suggest that shorelines with complex vegetation support higher survival of the fishes that use them,” said Dr. Ryan Schloesser, postdoctoral scientist at Mote. “With more snook releases over time, we are working to substantiate and further develop our findings so that we can provide useful information for homeowners and resource managers. Our findings to date suggested that, if homeowners want to make a fish friendly decision, they should support healthy vegetation along their shoreline — this is beneficial for fish, even if the shoreline is artificially hardened.”

Mote staff scientist Dr. Nate Brennan and colleagues released some of Tuesday’s snook from shoreline sites. On River Ridge Way, local residents stopped by to learn about the fish and the creek.

“The site we’re at now is a mosaic — it has some seawall and some natural vegetation; the fish may stay here for awhile after release, and then the antenna arrays will tell us about their movements after that,” Brennan said, indicating three vertical poles with small electronic components posted along the shoreline. “The residents here have been very cooperative, helping us with getting the antennas installed.”

Mote scientists have released juvenile snook at many sites in Sarasota County for fisheries research. In 2016, Mote scientists tagged and released about 3,256 juvenile common snook born and raised at MAP into the wild in southwest Florida.

So far in 2017, Mote scientists have released approximately 1,415 juvenile snook into Phillippi Creek for the habitat-use study, which focuses on eight sites along the creek. Recently Mote scientists set up an additional monitoring station at Riverview High School, for enhanced data collection on fish moving between areas of the creek. Some snook were placed into acclimation cages two days before their release for ongoing research on how to help snook adjust to their new environment. Others were released directly to creek waters.

On Tuesday at the River Ridge Way site, Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida Co-Directors Drs. Jennifer and David Shafer stopped by to educate local residents about Phillippi Creek, which flows through many people’s backyards.

“Mote’s study is interesting because it shows where snook go, what shoreline habitats they use most, and where they survive best. Natural vegetated shorelines provide the best fish habitat and improve water quality,” Jennifer Shafer said. “People tell us that, when they were kids, they used to catch a lot of fish in the Creek, and they’re excited to learn it may be possible to bring that back and every homeowner can help out. This type of research can help us understand just what we need to do to restore Phillippi Creek.”

About snook

Snook are one of the most sought-after catches in Florida’s saltwater recreational fishing industry, which is worth more than $8 billion.

Increased fishing pressure and environmental concerns such as weather patterns and red tide contributed to a serious decline in snook population, which placed them on the state’s list of “species of special concern” in the 1980s. As a result, fishing restrictions and careful monitoring led to a rebound in snook abundances in the 1990s.

However, occasional environmental pressures such as red ride and winter freezes — like the 2010 winter cold spell that killed millions of snook and led to a temporary harvest closure of the fishery — continue to reduce snook stocks periodically. Thus, for more than 25 years, Mote and Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission scientists have partnered on research studies designed to evaluate whether stocking hatchery-reared snook can be an effective fishery management tool for rapidly replenishing snook stocks following the periodic mortality that red tides and cold weather can cause.

About Phillippi Creek

Phillippi Creek, Sarasota Bay’s largest freshwater creek, is an estuarine tidal creek system that drains approximately 56 square miles through more than 100 miles of ditches and canals within the Sarasota Bay Watershed. Along its 7-mile length are parks, businesses and residences offering diverse habitats for young snook and other species. Over time, erosion filled portions of the creek with sediments and reduced flow. Local residents and the Sarasota County government have launched an initiative to improve the creek’s water quality.

Residents throughout the watershed can help support a healthier creek.

Here are a few practical tips:

  • Skip the fertilizer during summer months, when rains can wash it into storm drains and into the creek.
  • Replace areas of grass with Florida-friendly plants that require less water, fertilizer and pesticides.
  • Pick up pet waste.
  • Replace pavement with pervious surfaces like pavers and gravel, to let water soak into the landscape instead of becoming stormwater.
  • Add native plants along shorelines to provide nutrient filtration and reduce erosion into the creeks.