Fishing restrictions extended after red tide decimated populations

Under the shadows of the Ringling Bridge in Sarasota, Sam Garapolo casts his line. 

"There's always the excitement when something hits. You don't know what's on it," he said.

Just nine days before the restrictions were set to end, Florida wildlife officials are extending the catch-and-release order for snook and redfish.

Sam now knows if he catches a snook, redfish, or spotted sea trout, he'll be throwing them back. 

"Let's save them. Let's get them reproduced," he said. 

During a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation meeting Wednesday, officials decided to leave the catch-and-release orders in place after red tide devastated marine populations in 2018. The order extends through May 31, 2020.

The order covers fishing waters from the Pasco-Hernando County line to Gordon’s Pass in Collier County. The order now includes spotted sea trout. However, fishermen have until May 11 to catch and keep trout weighing between 15 to 20 inches.

Red tide devastated the redfish and snook populations and prompted officials to enforce a catch-and-release order in September 2018.

Researchers said the water is now free of red tide dangers, and work can begin to bring fish population numbers back to where they should be.

Redfish and Snook are often on the restricted fishing list, but spotted sea trout are new. 

"I've been months now without catching any trout in Sarasota Bay," said Captain Jonnie Walker, of Bay Walker Charters. 

Walker said it's one of the first times in 45 years that he's seen their population dip. 

"This is very unusual for me not to be able to catch trout. This time of year, it’s spring, the trout are normally in big schools and all over the bay. They’re usually easy to catch but we aren’t catching any," he said. 

He, like many, said giving them a break from fishermen's lines is needed. 

"A fish will lay tens of thousands of eggs so if you have a few spawners left in the bay they will repopulate the bay very quickly," said Captain Jonnie. 

Captain Jonnie, his son, and his grandson make their livings as charter fishermen. He wants to make sure the bay can come back. 

"It kind of makes me worried about what will happen… I want them to enjoy the livelihood and fun that I’ve had in fishing Sarasota," he said. 

Officials will re-evaluate the snook population on March 1, 2020.