Snook recover after 2010 cold snap

Snook seem to be a popular topic these days. They are a Florida icon, and underwater I would consider them part of the charismatic fauna we have here.

They can be very shy, and they like to hide under ledges and in swim-through areas on the reef. They stay pretty much on the bottom. They seem peaceful and donÂ’t seem to mind divers if approached cautiously.

I usually make sure they see me, and approach them in a slow, deliberate fashion. I donÂ’t think I have ever seen one move very fast, but as I said, I approach them with no sudden movements. I think they like to find a spot and hangout, like a couch potato (whereÂ’s my remote?).

This year IÂ’ve seen a lot of snook on French Reef and in several spots on Molasses Reef. They were there in numbers a couple months ago when the massive minnow schools were on French Reef. The groupers and snappers were zipping all around, and the snook were lethargically sliding in and out of the minnow caves.

I have seen more this year than ever — but my first winter was the 2009-2010 cold snap. Scientists say that about one third of the snook stock did not survive that cold spell, and the effect was the most devastating on the juvenile population, which are a bit less tolerant to chilly water.

Snook have a long history of recreational fishing, and are an important part of the flats fishing effort. A lot of guides get a lot of paychecks from helping anglers catch snook. After three years as a catch-and-release scenario, folks can take them this year. New fishing rules allow one per day per person within specific size ranges.

The importance of the flats fishery to our economy is huge. According to the recent Bonefish and Tarpon Trust report, in 2012, well over $400 million in economic impact was generated from flats fishing. Although snook fishing is not broken out as an individual species in the report, it is included in the “Other inshore” category with redfish, sharks and barracuda. This segment accounted for 45 percent of the total expenditures. You can see this report here: Open the link and see Table 19 on page 22.

From what I have read in other articles and reports, there are still some scientists and guides that think itÂ’s too soon to take any snook, and they should be catch-and-release for at least another year. One of the concerns is a large part of an entire age cohort is missing from the population. Juveniles in the shallows were the hardest hit, which leaves a gaping hole in the age continuum. ItÂ’s sort of like a college that has a recent graduating class about half the size of a normal graduating class. ThereÂ’s a bunch of folks missing.

How will that cold-shortened graduating class affect the breeding stock in the next few years? They have made a great comeback, no doubt about it, but perhaps that is one of the concerns of the folks that want to keep them as a catch-and-release species for a while longer.

What a great example of the resilience of a species when protective measures are implemented. Now we have more on the reef, and some in the pan.

Another interesting aspect of the snook population is documented in the telemetry study from the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. They acoustically tagged 30 snook in the 9-square mile Banana River No-Take Reserve near Kennedy Space Center. This is one of the oldest no-take reserves in the country. They looked at the movement of snook within protected waters and beyond.

They examined the no-take reserve as a spatial approach to fisheries management, with the export of targeted species over time — spillover — as a primary component of the observation data assembled. They found that after a year and a half into the study, none of the larger fish that left (spilled over) returned to the reserve. One was found about 118 miles away by a fisherman, who returned the acoustic transmitter.

On the down side, they found that smaller individuals were less likely to migrate. This had a severe effect during the cold snap, as movements of tagged fish in the reserve stopped, suggesting they had not survived the cold.

According to the FWC website, “The current investigation illustrates how such extreme events can severely deplete the population of a singular no-take reserve. To be effective as fisheries management tools, multiple no-take reserves may need to be spread throughout the range of the focal species.” See for the detailed information.

In another article on the Snook Foundation site (, Ron Taylor is quite specific on the habitat and life-cycle needs of a healthy snook population. The article is called “The Developmental Stages (Ontogeny) and Associated Habitats of Common Snook.” This is a good read, as it details the entire life cycle of snook, and spells out the critical importance of healthy mangroves and upland rivers to juvenile development and recruitment into the adult population. I loaded a pdf version on my web site for easy access:

All in all, snook demonstrate a great comeback for an iconic species with some protection in place, the positive effect of spillover from protection as a fishery management technique, and the importance of protecting diverse habitats to ensure the transition of juveniles to the adult population.

There is a great lesson here for ecosystem protection initiatives.

Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at or through his web site at

Lionfish might become latest delicacy on your dinner plate

After trying desperately to eliminate the lionfish, a venomous predator that ravages local reefs and devours other sea creatures, experts think they have a solution: Serve the darn thing for dinner with some lemon and tartar sauce.

“It’s deadly, but it’s one of most delicious fish you’ll ever eat,” said David Link, manager of the Food Shack in Jupiter, one of nine Florida restaurants already serving lionfish, most on a limited basis.

Many restaurants would like to make lionfish a regular menu item but have been unable to find a steady supply. Because the pretty but prickly fish prefers to lurk near the bottom, avoiding nets, it’s tricky to catch.

  • The lionfish may be pretty but it is also venomous and a voracious eater that is jeopardizing other fish populations and scouring reefs.

  • The REEF Lionfish cookbook contains 45 recipes.

  • Unusual animal-crossing signs in South Florida and beyond

Usually, they’re caught when they roam into lobster traps or when divers spear them, making them an unsavory proposition for commercial fishing operations.

Just the same, if enough restaurants express a craving for lionfish, fishermen would be enticed to catch more of them, potentially decreasing their numbers, said Lad Akins, director of special projects for REEF, a non-profit marine conservation group based in Key Largo.

“We certainly want to see lionfish in more restaurants because as it goes into the market place, it creates a demand,” he said. “Anything that removes them out of the water is a good thing.”

As it stands, the lionfish – able to produce 30,000 eggs in a shot – is proliferating so quickly that it is jeopardizing the populations of other fish, such as snapper, and scouring local reefs, said Tony Fins, spokesman for the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, a marine conservation agency.

“Lionfish are the biggest threat to ecosystem, not only in Florida, but also the Caribbean,” he said. “We all know this is a problem, so let’s speed up the process.”

Steve Gittings, science program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Sanctuary Program, said stemming the invasion of lionfish, which are non-native to Florida, poses a major challenge.

“Without any known predators, and apparently no significant diseases or parasitic controls in Atlantic ecosystems, their numbers continue to skyrocket,” he said.

To make lionfish easier to catch, the Guy Harvey Research Institute, based in Dania Beach, would like to see “reachable habitats” established. One way to do that is to make sure artificial reefs, such as old boats, are not sunk in water any deeper than 100 feet, Fins said.

“Under 100 feet, divers can spear the fish,” he said. “The number of people who can dive lower than 100 feet is radically smaller.”

Further ramping up the campaign to see lionfish grilled, blackened or sautéed: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will hold its annual Lionfish Summit Oct. 22-24 in Cocoa Beach. Akins, a keynote speaker, said he will stress that lionfish need to be made available to more restaurants.

“There are number of restaurants that want as much as they can take,” he said.

For those seafood lovers who fear they might consume venom should the lionfish end up on their plates, Akins said not to worry. When the fish is filleted, its meat is separated from where the venom is stored in its spine. Further, once the fish is cooked, any venom would be rendered harmless.

The lionfish uses its 18 venomous spines as a defense mechanism to fend off other predators, Akins said. If a human is poked by one of the spines, it would be painful and cause swelling – but it wouldn’t be fatal, he added.

Because the lionfish “is such a good eating fish, light and delicate,” his organization has published “The Lionfish Cookbook.” Now in its second printing, it includes 45 recipes. He added that the lionfish contains a low amount of omega fat, making it one of the healthiest fish as well.

Mano Calambichis, co-owner of Big Chef, a food supplier based in Davie, said he hopes fishermen find an efficient way to catch the lionfish because he’s confident that restaurant patrons would gobble it down in large quantities.

“We better learn how to eat them, before they eat us,” he said. or 954-572-2085.

5 awesome and affordable American drives


Every corner of the U.S. — including yours! — offers a bold, beautiful road trip that rolls out an unforgettable vacation at a reasonable price. Here, five that we bet you haven’t taken yet.

We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that a vacation has to involve flying, or covering great distances via some other elaborate, pricey conveyance, such as a cruise ship. But here at Budget Travel we’ve always liked to mix our globe-spanning coverage with ultra-local finds, too. And our Road Trip department is the heart and soul of that commitment. In fact, we’ve even launched the Ultimate Road Trips App to put more than 70 American road trips at your fingertips. Here, we share five of our favorite American drives, which combine accessibility and affordability with awesome scenery, great food, history, and the nicest folks to meet along the way. We invite you to fire up your GPS, fill up your tank, and get up and go.

Blue Ridge Parkway
From Washington, D.C., to the Great Smoky Mountains

Some of the Southeast’s most beautiful mountains and charming communities can be yours with a drive that starts in Washington, D.C. and actually connects two stunning national parks.

A 90-minute drive from D.C. on Interstate 66 through Virginia horse country, the 105-mile-long Skyline Drive meanders along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the broad Shenandoah Valley unfolding to the west. Paralleling the road for much of the way — and crossing it many times — is the Appalachian Trail; from the side of the road, utterly fearless Virginia white-tailed deer sniff at passing cars. Near Waynesboro, Skyline Drive turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway, where it stretches for hours and passes overlooks with memorable names (Raven’s Roost, Peaks of Otter), before reaching a turnoff for surprisingly cosmopolitan Roanoke. The recently renovated 1882 Hotel Roanoke ( has history behind it: The hotel’s bar was once a World War II officers’ club, and the ballroom hosted a cattle auction in the sixties. Today, in-room spa services are more typical.

One of the New Deal’s most ambitious endeavors, the curvaceous “park to park highway” links Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park with North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park via dozens of hairpin turns and 26 tunnels cut through Appalachian granite. Spot a 19th-century farm or postage-stamp-size town at the bottom of a verdant mountainside and you’ll realize how seemingly unchanged the road remains since its inception way back in 1935.

As you drive farther into the heart of Appalachia, the traffic thins and the valleys plunge deeper. The Blue Ridge Music Center (, located in Galax, Va., with its outdoor concerts and weekday-afternoon traditional banjo-picking and fiddle sessions, is a welcome sign of civilization near the North Carolina line. (Banjo music is the ideal soundtrack for this drive. Grab yourself a CD compilation of Appalachian music with songs by Aaron Copland and John Williams.) From here, a curving 100-mile drive leads to 87-acre Chetola Resort (, North Carolina’s only Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing lodge. Yoga, horseshoes, and canoes await those with little interest in hooking a trout.

It’s easy to see how the Blue Ridge earned its name — layers of peaks really do tint blue in the distance. In downtown Asheville, N.C., 87 miles west of the resort, Southern classics (cornmeal-crusted catfish) are made with ingredients from local farms at the Early Girl Eatery ( After lunch, it’s on to Gatlinburg, Tenn., where the Bearskin Lodge‘s lazy river mimics the nearby Little Pigeon River ( To experience the full sweep of the Great Smoky Mountains, take Newfound Gap Road up 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, the park’s tallest peak, where you can see more than 100 miles out on clear days.

It’s almost a sin not to spend a couple of extra days in Gatlinburg, on the edge of the national park, and explore the Great Smoky Mountains. The options are limitless, from hiking and biking to rock climbing — but the white-water rafting trumps them all, with no fewer than five world-class rivers in the area. Get a taste through a half-day trip on the 24 Class III and IV rapids of the Big Pigeon River (

En route back to D.C., take in the crystalline formations of Skyline Caverns in Front Royal, Va. And, if you’re up for a totally worth-it splurge, get yourself a sweeping final view of the Shenandoah Valley on a Blue Ridge Hot Air Balloons tour ( 

Joshua Tree
Palm Springs to Joshua Tree National Park

The Joshua tree, made famous by the national park and the 1987 U2 album of the same name, is actually a yucca. Legend has it that the yucca was renamed by Mormon settlers who thought its upraised limbs and scruffy-bearded appearance resembled the prophet Joshua leading them to the promised land. Joshua Tree National Park is at its most crowded from March through May, when the wildflowers are in bloom and the temperatures are still mild; if you’re hoping to avoid the crowds, such as they are, consider visiting in the fall. Most major airlines serve Palm Springs International Airport.

Heading northwest from Palm Springs on Indian Canyon Drive, you’ll be greeted by the wind farms of San Gorgonio Pass. The 60-foot-tall gray metal poles are intrusive, but striking, and in any event harnessing the wind is better than burning oil. With more than 4,000 turbines, the farm is one of world’s largest, and if you’re in a convertible, you’ll hear the propellers whirring every time you stop at a red light. They sound like gentle waves breaking in the clouds.

Desert Hot Springs, 50 miles south, is built over a natural mineral-water aquifer, and the town claims to have some of the world’s best water. The Emerald Springs Resort and Spa (760/288-0071) offers rooms with turquoise walls, black furniture, and white duvets, giving it a fifties vibe. Go swimming in all three of the hotel’s heated mineral-water pools, in the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains, surrounded by cacti and bougainvillea. Then get a good night’s sleep, in anticipation of your first day exploring Joshua Tree National Park.

Head east on Highway 62, toward the West Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. At nearly 800,000 acres, the park straddles two distinct deserts: the Mojave in the north, marked by craggy Joshua trees and moon-like rock formations, and the Colorado in the south, with wide-open vistas and jagged mountain peaks. Between the two lies the transition zone, with features from both plus cholla cactus gardens and patches of spidery ocotillo. The Joshua Tree Visitor Center is the place to buy lots of water — one gallon per person per day, two in the summer.

You may feel as if you’ve been transported to prehistoric times. Boulders the size of dump trucks sit near spiky trees, and the air is fragrant with lavender and chia. Keys View, by far one of the park’s best panoramas, is about five miles south. At nearly 5,200 feet above sea level, you can see the entire Coachella Valley, including the Salton Sea, the town of Indio, and the San Jacinto Mountains. Get another good night’s sleep at the Harmony Motel (, in nearby Twentynine Palms.

Reenter the park near the Oasis of Mara, then make your way through the transition zone to the southern end. Joshua trees become sparser, the air gets hotter and drier, and chest-high cholla cacti, with fine, light-green needles, begin to appear. Look, but don’t touch! And while you’re looking, check out the vistas of the Colorado Desert off in the distance. 

Utah’s canyon country
Grand Junction, Colo., to Zion National Park, Utah

Cramming five national parks into four days isn’t for everyone. But if you are going to attempt such a quest, Southern Utah is the place to do it. Five of the nation’s most gorgeous parks are packed into 650 miles of high desert. Bryce Canyon and Zion are both justly famous; so are the sandstone bridges in Arches National Park. Less well known are Canyonlands, every inch as impressive as the Grand Canyon, and Capitol Reef.

Moab, Utah, is less than a 90-minute drive from Grand Junction, Colo. Moab is conveniently located between Arches and Canyonlands. You can have panoramic views of the desert at the northern end of Arches whether you stay in your car or book a mountain-bike ride. But don’t just look up and around but also down: The area is dotted with three-toed dinosaur footprints every 50 yards or so. At Arches’ southern end, families explore trails along rock formations such as Balanced Rock and Double Arch. Bed down at Moab’s Red Cliffs Lodge ( and grab a pint at the city’s oldest microbrew, Eddie McStiff’s (

The largest of the five national parks at 527 square miles, Canyonlands includes the northern Island in the Sky section (all grand, wide canyons), and the more intimate Needles, where pygmy juniper trees decorate the ground, and hundreds of layers of sandstone fan out in phyllo-like sheets. The black stone of Newspaper Rock is covered in petroglyphs that were scratched over a 2,000-year period by native tribes (Anasazi, Fremont, Paiute, and Navajo). It’s an impressive collage of images: men on horseback hunting antelope, oversize gods sprouting horns and antlers. Get a good head start on tomorrow by staying in Torrey, where the Cowboy Homestead Cabins will welcome you (

Torrey is the gateway to Capitol Reef, the least well known of Utah’s five national parks. Route 24 cuts through it, threading a high valley carved by the little Fremont River. The 10-mile Scenic Drive leads to a long wash (a dry canyon that becomes a river after heavy rain). The walls rise hundreds of feet on both sides as the dirt road twists its way through the increasingly narrow canyon.

Splurge on Bryce Canyon Lodge ( for a night — ask for a lovely balcony with rough-hewn logs for a railing. At Bryce, the altitude ranges from about 7,900 feet to more than 9,100 feet. Two of its best overlooks are at Agua Canyon and the rock window called Natural Bridge.

When you get to Zion, you may want to opt for the park’s most rewarding short hike, the half-mile-long Canyon Overlook Trail. Private cars are no longer allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive north of the visitors center, so catch the free shuttle to the Riverside Walk trail, which leads to the Narrows, a 16-mile trail that doubles as the bed of the Virgin River. After hitting five national parks along this great drive, collapse into a comfy bed at the Canyon Ranch Motel ( after soaking in its outdoor hot tub! 

Florida Keys
Key West to Key Largo

Lined with Victorian mansions and late-19th-century commercial buildings, Key West’s main road, Duval Street, is a picturesque thoroughfare pocked with rocking-loud bars. A quieter side of Key West is immediately apparent when you turn onto Petronia Street, heading into the Bahama Village neighborhood.

At Blue Heaven restaurant (305/296-8666), in a courtyard that was the scene of boxing matches during the Depression, tables sit under a canopy of trees, a balmy breeze stirring their leaves, and at least a half dozen of Key West’s free-roaming chickens scratch around for crumbs. The special is a lobster melt — like a fancy tuna melt — and it’s as good as it sounds.

Catch the tour at the Little White House (305/294-9911), an 1890 house on Key West’s former naval base. Harry Truman vacationed there 11 times during his presidency.

Don’t miss Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, a daily event since the sixties. Grab a margarita from a stand and wander among the crowds and street performers before turning in at the Chelsea House (, in a converted Victorian house surrounded by a garden that makes it feel private and tranquil, though it’s just a stone’s throw from Duval Street.

Before hitting the road the next day, stop by the Hemingway Home and Museum (, where Ernest Hemingway lived with his second wife, Pauline, and their two sons from 1931 to 1940. It’s said that Hemingway was given a six-toed cat—often called “mitten cats”—by a friend who was a ship captain; many cats, most of which are its descendants, live on the grounds today. As the writer quipped, “One cat just leads to another.” And speaking of animals, don’t miss the Key West Butterfly Nature Conservatory (, where you’ll be amazed at the sight of so many elusive, fluttering beauties.

When it’s time to head north, Route 1, the Overseas Highway, is a sight in itself. In the 1880s, Henry Flagler, an original partner in Standard Oil, began developing resorts along Florida’s east coast. He also started buying up and connecting the state’s railroad lines. St. Augustine, Palm Beach, and Miami all owe their development to Flagler’s efforts. Between 1905 and 1912, Flagler constructed the Over-Sea Railroad, 156 miles of track — much of it on trestles over open water — that linked Miami and Key West. When the first train rolled into town in 1912, it was greeted by 15,000 townspeople. Unfortunately, a fierce hurricane ripped through the Keys in 1935; an 18-foot tidal wave and 200-mile-per-hour winds washed out the embankment and mangled tracks, but the bridges and trestles stood. In 1938, the federal government took over the route and built the Overseas Highway. Route 1 is the main (and often only) road on the narrow strips of land that are the various keys. Mile-marker signs, which start from zero in Key West, are used as locators for addresses along the highway.

The marvelous Seven Mile Bridge runs between mile markers 40 and 47. Until 1982, the bridge ran on the piers originally built for Flagler; those remains stand alongside the new bridge. In Marathon, the White Sands Inn ( has rooms decorated with sunny primary colors and Caribbean-inspired fabrics.

An hour’s drive north brings you to Key Largo, where a bungalow at the Coconut Bay Resort ( and a slice of, yes, key lime pie, more than live up to the hype. 

Great Lakes Seaway Trail
Massena, N.Y., to West Springfield, Penn.

Consider the Great Lakes Seaway Trail the inland version of California’s Pacific Coast Highway. This scenic waterfront byway — a 500+-mile drive if you want to go all the way — includes the St. Lawrence Seaway with its imposing Eisenhower Lock, 40 state parks along the way, and 28 historic lighthouses on the shores of two rivers (the Niagara and the St. Lawrence) and two of the Great Lakes (Ontario and Erie).

One of the don’t-miss sights along the way is Presque Isle State Park, Pa. ( This sandy, 3,200-acre peninsula near Erie has miles of untouched beaches to explore. And while the park is immensely popular in summer, it’s also a draw in deep winter, when it becomes home to cross country skiers, snow shoers, and ice fishers. The “ice dunes” formed by freezing waves are something you don’t see on your average winter jaunt.

Sodus Bay Lighthouse Museum (, overlooking the southern shore of Lake Ontario in New York State, is a first-rate maritime museum operated by the Sodus Bay Historical Society in the building that once housed the lighthouse keepers, beside the tower and Fresnel lens.

The Great Lakes Seaway Trail’s greatest claim to fame, however, is iconic Niagara Falls. There are two towns named Niagara Falls, one in New York and one in Canada. The New York side boasts a state park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (of Central Park fame). The Maid of the Mist ( boat will take you right to Horseshoe Falls, where the falls crash at their mightiest. If the word “horsehoe” inspires you to test your luck, head over the the Seneca Niagara Casino (, a recent addition to the scene that includes gaming, food, and lodging.

But we suggest that you spend the night on the Canadian side. The Chalet Inn Suites ( is a good choice — and it even includes heart-shaped bathtubs, inspired by Niagara’s popularity as a honeymoon destination. The Canadian side is something of a mecca for wax museum aficionados, too. Louis Tussaud’s ( may be the best known. But, more importantly, the Canadian side also has the better view of the falls. During the day, you’ll see rainbows in the mist, and in the evening, colorful floodlights transform the cascading water.

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Barracuda, the torpedo of the reef

Last time I dove the Duane, we did a double dip. During our surface interval we watched a boat zip around between the Duane and the Bibb, spearfishing for barracuda.

It took the guy our entire surface interval to spear one barracuda. I realize they are used for bait, but wow, I thought that was a lot of effort for one fish, and the one he speared was not really very big.

Barracuda are another iconic charismatic species in the Keys. On one of my first trips to the Keys, in the late 1980s, my first experience with a school of barracuda was on a night dive. While heading back up the line to the boat, I was surrounded, as thick as the light could penetrate, with a wall of barracuda about two feet in length.

Not the biggest I’d seen, but the sheer numbers were impressive, and admittedly, a bit intimidating. I remember thinking “only one of these guys needs to get crazy and I’m toast.” But they were docile, and I always think of that incident when I see a school now. The largest schools I have seen were in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Other than under the life support buoy at Aquarius Reef Base, the most consistent place I see schools of barracuda are on the shallow southern end of Molasses Reef. More congregate there than on the Duane. Glad itÂ’s within the protected area. And most of the time they are difficult to approach, unlike the schools overseas. I see a fair amount of them with hooks and lures hanging out of their jaws.

While I was poking around looking for some science about barracuda, I found an article on one of the fishing sites that said “Problem is, like many other fish, barracuda numbers seem to be dropping in areas with lots of fishing pressure, like the Florida Keys. There’s no mystery there; couple a lack of respect from many anglers with no bag and size limit, and you’ve got a recipe for scarcity. Or worse.” See the article, by Joe Richard, first posted in 2005, and reposted in May, here:

That makes sense to me. I have noticed fewer cudas on the Duane than there used to be. I agree with his assessment, and to see if I could attach some support to what he said, I pulled sighting frequency data from the database. I looked at the Key Largo area from 1997 to this year. HeÂ’s right, at least as far as sightings by survey divers go.

The trend is down, from 88 percent sighting barracuda during a survey in 1997 to a bottom of 64 percent in 2011, and a slight rebound to 68 percent in 2012.

This also tracks with NOAAÂ’s Marine Recreational Information Program, although their geographic areas are larger. Data for both East Florida and West Florida show a similar downward trend in catch survey data. Both areas bottomed out in 2011, as did the REEF sightings data.

Average length per catch is also showing a downward trend, and is approaching the length of maturity for females in East Florida. The 2010 cold spell seemed to intensify the downward trend.

I was not able to find a lot of scientific research on their spawning practices or aggregations, but I did find some other information on growth and age.

Males are sexually mature at one to two years (minimum 18 inches in length) and females reach maturity at two to four years of age (about 23 inches). The flow of larvae from offshore reefs inward to the shallows peaks in late June to early July, with a second peak in late August to early September. This suggests a split spawning season for barracuda, in June and August. In the study I read from the Bulletin of Marine Science (see “all female barracuda with developed, hydrated oocytes were collected on offshore wrecks in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic.”

So my question is, does fishing the wrecks and taking the cudas, particularly in the summer, have a significant effect on the population? I guess time will tell.

While most folks concede that barracuda look quite menacing, they actually have one of the least strong bite force measurements among apex predators. For example, barracuda rate 83 Newtons on the scale, while a hogfish rates 290, a striped burrfish rates 380, a blacktip shark 423, a bull shark 1,023 and a great hammerhead a whopping 2,432.

Lemon sharks are about the same as barracudas, at 79. I think this is a bit misleading, since it is the anterior measurement. The posterior measurement is quite a bit stronger, around 260 in a large cuda. Because of the shape of the elongated jaw in barracuda, there are significant differences in the anterior and posterior bite force. Their conclusion is a crunching bite force is not necessary for a species to be an apex predator, but other feeding strategies may be part of the story. See from the Journal of Zoology.

ItÂ’s not the bite, itÂ’s the bang. A barracuda is a torpedo, and the relative weakness of the bite force is more than offset by the speed to a prey item. ItÂ’s called ram feeding, and the shape of the jaw, the gape as a barracuda approaches a prey item and the speed at which the blow is delivered contribute to the overall efficiency of a barracuda strike. See for this study.

I have to wonder if, in the future, barracuda will become another species of concern if their numbers continue to decline.

Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at or through his web site at



Vern Hobbs

Article Category: Features, Get Out Of Town Leave a Comment

The summer road trip. Is there a tradition more uniquely American? The desire to strike out down the endless highway is rooted in our DNA. Well, summer is almost over. Maybe Route 66 will have to wait another year. But despair not; Florida offers a most exceptional road trip: the Overseas Highway.

Officially, the Overseas Highway is the segment of US 1 between Florida City and Key West, a distance of 127.5 miles, with 42 bridges. The route is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated an “All American Road,” one of 30 nationwide, and the only one in Florida. The journey can be made in four hours, but most road-trippers recommend at least 48. It will take that long to stop at all the photo-worthy vistas, hit some funky roadside cafes, and overnight at a couple of one-of-a-kind roadside lodgings.

Arriving in Key West by air, we visited a few of the city’s venerated sights before beginning our northbound road trip the next morning. We hung our hats at the Hotel LaConcha, itself a Key West institution. Built in 1926, LaConcha, now a Crowne Plaza franchise, blends art deco style with relaxed hospitality. It’s a short walk to the Hemingway house, a Spanish manor set amid tropical gardens where the great writer penned his most immortal manuscripts. Directly across the street, the Key West Lighthouse provides both a panoramic view and a glimpse into the island’s past. We posed for photos at the southernmost point in the continental United States, downed cold beers at the Green Parrot, the last bar on US 1, then headed to Mallory Pier for Key West’s daily sunset celebration.


Right after breakfast we picked up our rental car. The helpful agent provided an explanation of mile markers. Taken for granted elsewhere, mile markers are the principle means of establishing location along the Overseas Highway and are often the only addresses offered. Mile marker 0 is in Key West; mile marker 127 in Florida City. Finally, she announced our car was ready, pointing to a Chrysler Sebring. While not quite as sexy as the vintage Corvette George Maharis and Martin Milner used to inspire a generation of road trippers, the Sebring did have one feature vital to this adventure: a convertible top.

Scarcely out of Key West, we made our first stop, an historical marker commemorating the arrival of the first train to Key West. The votive sign reminds us that the Overseas Highway was preceded by the Miami-Key West extension of the Florida East Coast Railway, considered one of the greatest engineering feats accomplished when it was completed in 1912. Today’s Overseas Highway uses many of the original railway bridge spans, a testament to their resilient construction.


Apart from the bustle of Key West, nature is the theme of the Lower Keys. At the Key Deer Refuge (mile marker 29) we learned about this miniature subspecies of the common white-tail deer and their struggle for survival. Bahia Honda State Park (37), is dedicated to the protection of the region’s delicate estuary.

At mile marker 40 we rolled onto the vaunted Seven-Mile Bridge, longest on the Overseas Highway. This span, marking the boundary between the Lower and Middle Keys, most challenged the construction crews building the Overseas Railway. Strong tidal currents demanded that new structural anchoring techniques be developed. Then, a major hurricane destroyed much of the bridge prior to completion, threatening the entire project. The delay resulted in a rush to finish the bridge, and gave the town at the north end its name: Marathon. Representing to many the perfect tropical paradise, Marathon is a vibrant town known for fishing and diving. Dining and entertainment venues abound, plus, Marathon boasts a unique lodging experience: overnight accommodation aboard a boat at Sea Cove Resort and Marina.

Craig Key (72), marks passage from the Middle to the Upper Keys. A few miles further, at mile marker 81.5, we discover a sober reminder of past tragedy. The Islamorada Hurricane Memorial pays tribute to the estimated 400 lives lost to the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, still among the most powerful on record. Happier memories are made at the nearby Theatre of the Sea (84), the second oldest marine mammal attraction in the world. The daily dolphin show is an Islamorada favorite.


The indelible link between Key West and Ernest Hemingway is rivaled by the connection of Humphrey Bogart to Key Largo (95). Originally called Rock Harbor, the town was renamed for Bogart’s hit movie. Bogartmania is in further evidence at mile marker 100, where the African Queen, the actual boat used in the 1951 film, is permanently enshrined. The less Hollywood inspired side of Key Largo, and by far its greatest attraction, is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (102). The first undersea park in the U.S., Pennekamp showcases the pristine marine environment of the Keys.

All too soon, mile marker 127 slides into view, and our top-down, summer road trip is over. A wise person once said, “It’s the journey that matters.” I’ll wager that person has driven the Overseas Highway.


Tags: • Issue 9, Volume 9, September 2013

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Fishermen: Let charterboats sell excess dolphin

Charterboat crews should be allowed to resume selling part of their dolphin catches, South Atlantic Fishery Management Council members heard at a Thursday hearing in Key Largo.

“For-hire crews are traditional suppliers of dolphin fish” to local restaurants and wholesalers, said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association.

For decades, many South Florida and Keys charterboat crews — primarily mates — earned extra money by selling dolphin caught under recreational bag limits and not kept by their boat’s customers.

But in April 2012, the South Atlantic Council banned the practice as part of its new Annual Catch Limit rules.
With no significant commercial dolphin fishery in the Keys, that deprives restaurants of the freshest fish available, Kelly said.

“The United States has the safest seafood in the world,” Kelly said. “We’d rather see properly licensed [charter crews] sell dolphin than increased imports or backdoor sales.”

Under the current law, some fishing tournaments can sell caught dolphin “as part of their financial remuneration,” Kelly said. “To allow that while depriving other properly licensed [fishermen] is a travesty.”

Tom Tharp, a Key Largo recreational angler, said customers “are essentially deprived of the freshest fish” at Keys restaurants.

“They have to give [extra fish] away, throw ’em away or sell them under the table,” he said. “We’re eating imported fish from other places.”

That financially harms both the crews and restaurants, he contended.

“That money means a lot to my crews,” Miami charter captain Ray Rosher said at a separate fisheries meeting July 30 in Key Largo. “We’re allowed to kill the fish but we have to give them away. That’s discriminatory and not wise for our region.”

South Atlantic Council Chairman David Cupka acknowledged that sales of dolphin from charterboat trips had been a longstanding practice “in this part of the world.”

Charter customers “get excited” while they’re catching their 10-fish limit of dolphin, Cupka said, “but then they find it hard to take the fish back home.”

“The other side of the argument is that you either allow recreational sales or you don’t,” Cupka said.

When the rule was passed, advocates said the ban on charter sales was needed to distinguish between commercial and recreational harvests, which have differing regulations and limits. “Unless there’s a problem with the stock, I’d like to see it go back to way it was,” Tharp said.

Charterboat sales of dolphin were not on the table Thursday, but it issue came up under a proposal to raise the annual catch limits of boat recreational and commercial dolphin.

Footage captures great white swimming above Key Largo’s Duane

A YouTube video that shows a great white shark patrolling the water above the wreck of the Duane off Key Largo is generating a lot of buzz around the dive community.

The video, shot the afternoon of July 27, was posted as charter boat fishing captains are reporting more frequent sightings of great whites off the Keys.

Great white sharks are very rare in Keys waters, and what makes the video even more unique is that it was shot smack in the middle of summer when water temperatures are well into the 80s. The large predators are thought to mostly frequent colder coastal waters off areas like northern California and New England in the United States and Australia and South Africa across the globe.

“Wow, just incredible,” Neil Hammerschlag, director of the University of Miami’s R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, said in an e-mail after seeing the video.

The footage was shot by Shawn Dickens, a 36-year-old diver from Melbourne. He was doing a checkout dive after not going underwater for 11 months. He was with his aunt and uncle, Terry and Ginny Witt.

A little more than a minute into the video as Dickens and the Witts descend down the rope attached to the 327-foot sunken Coast Guard cutter, Dickens pans his camera to the left. At first a blurry white shape appears in the distance. But soon the shark appears clearly, slowly swimming to get a closer look at the divers.

What was going through DickensÂ’ head when the shark appeared?

“I’m not exactly sure about my aunt and uncle, but I was going ‘hell yeah, this is going to be a great first dive video on the GoPro,’” Dickens said, referring to his GoPro HD Hero 3 Black Edition.

The Duane is about six miles off Key Largo. The average depth of the ship is about 95 feet below the surface, with a maximum depth of 130 feet, according to

About two minutes later, the three divers are at the shipÂ’s smokestack. As the camera sweeps to the right, the viewer sees the shark followed the divers down to the sunken vessel. The shark then slowly glides away and disappears into the depths.

Dickens said that was his first encounter with a great white since he began diving in 2002.

“That is the first time I’ve seen one on a dive,” he said. “Probably the first time seeing one not on TV.”

“We were talking after the dive about the fact that we aren’t sure if anyone else we know would be able to stay calm.”

However, this being South Florida, this was not the first time Dickens saw sharks during a dive, and specifically not the first time he saw them on the Duane. But nothing compares to the great white encounter.

“We’ve had a dive in the past on the Duane where two large bull sharks swam right at us the same way,” said Dickens. “But the two of them together had nothing on the intimidation factor of this one.”

See the video at

Follow David Goodhue on Twitter @DavidGoodhue.

Save Caribbean snorkeling and ‘eat a lion,’ conservationists say.

Here’s the last thing you’d expect to hear from a conservationist: Eat a lion.

But that’s exactly what marine biologists are telling people across the Caribbean, where red lionfish – an invader from the Pacific – threaten to devastate the marine ecosystems that make the region a renowned destination for SCUBA divers and snorkelers.

Lionfish share little with their big cat namesake other than a fan of fins that resembles a flowing mane and, more importantly, a veracious appetite. The fish gobble up the small native fish that are an integral piece of the food chain and an important link in maintaining dazzling underwater seascapes. With no natural predators or diseases to keep the population in check, lionfish are now found on nearly every coral reef from New York to Venezuela and they are multiplying fast. Lacking other options, conservationists are pushing a simple message: capture them and cook them. Fishing communities are learning how to catch and process lionfish, which carry a painful dose of venom in their fins. And restaurants and markets are trying to sell the white flakey filets, which taste like snapper or grouper.

Researchers say divers and fisherman appear to be the only players that can do anything to keep lionfish numbers down. Native predators, such as large groupers and sharks, don’t recognize lionfish as a prey.

“In addition to further research, it seems that the only thing we can do to control lionfish at this point is to keep spearing them,” says Serena Hackerott, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Ms. Hackerott was the lead author on a 2013 study, published in PLOS One, that found native predators, such as large groupers and sharks, are not controlling lionfish populations to a discernible degree.

“I think that’s our best bet now. I’m not optimistic that natural resistance is going to be enough of an interdiction to control the population.”

Unlike other fish that can be caught on a line, lionfish have to be netted or speared, making it a time-consuming catch. Across the Caribbean, conservation groups have worked with local communities to teach them how to capture and then process lionfish, pointing out how to avoid getting pricked by one of the venomous spines.

“My arm was inflamed all the way up to my shoulder,” says Mildred Minaya, a public relations executive for a Dominican bank who, with six office workers, formed a SCUBA diving group that goes out monthly to monitor and control the lionfish population at a marine park outside of the capital, Santo Domingo. “And I wasn’t even pricked directly. It just nicked me.”

The venomous fins are easily removed, and lionfish are completely safe to eat. Convincing diners of that, however, is another matter.

In Caribbean and Florida restaurants, you can find the fish fried whole, sautéed, served up in traditional sauces, or even raw in sushi plates.

“It’s a great eating fish. Even in places where it’s not being consumed or offered in a restaurant or at a fish retailer, there’s a lot of personal consumption taking place,” says Lad Akins, director of special projects at REEF, a Key Largo-based marine conservation nonprofit. “But it’s an expensive fish to collect, and the market place is still learning how to deal with it.”

At a white tablecloth restaurant off of Santo Domingo’s oceanfront boulevard, José Esteves, a maître d’ has been trying to push the lionfish in coconut milk sauce for the past year.

“It’s not very well known and people are a little hesitant to order it,” Mr. Esteves says. The restaurant, Vesuvio, sells the dish for $16.50, about $4 less than the more popular snapper plate. “There was a campaign, ‘eat a lion,’ that helped a little. The fish has a nice flavor.”

Even if there’s a permanent market for lionfish filets, humans might never be able to get ahead of the problem. New research is showing that lionfish are found at depths divers can’t reach: A submersible vessel spotted one 1,000 feet down off the Bahamas. The recommended maximum for recreational divers is around 100 feet or a little deeper.

No one is certain how lionfish arrived in the Atlantic and Caribbean, but scientists believe enough of the popular aquarium fish were dumped into the Atlantic to create a breeding population. When they arrived, they left behind the diseases and natural predators that have kept the Pacific population in check and the population has exploded in recent years.

Although relatively small (around 12 to 18 inches on average), they are skilled hunters. Just before striking, lionfish blow a jet of water to stun and position their prey headfirst to more easily eat them, researchers believe.

Divers observe them lazily hovering around the coral, eating anything they can fit in their mouths, from crustaceans to small fish. Among those fish they’re eating are the young of fish key to maintaining the health of coral reefs already under stress thanks to warming sea temperatures and ocean acidification.

Take parrotfish, a group made up of some 90 often brilliantly colored reef fish found throughout the Caribbean. Parrotfish feed on the algae that chokes – and eventually kills – coral reefs. They are key in helping reefs rebound from years of die-off, but they’re also a favorite meal for the lionfish. Unfortunately, because lionfish are recent arrivals, young parrotfish don’t recognize them as predators, making them helpless prey.

The seemingly insatiable appetite doesn’t stop there. It also poses a huge risk to Atlantic fisheries as they wolf down the young of fish like snapper and grouper.

Mr. Akins says evolution will eventually find a way to control the lionfish population. What happens in the meantime is the question.

“What a balance will look like is a complete unknown and the fear is that the picture once that balance is formed may be pretty dire,” he says. “The species we rely on commercially could be dramatically impacted to the point of potential collapse.”

Lionfish still attacking Florida Keys

Florida Keys’ coral reefs are still under attack by the invasive lionfish.

Keri Kenning, of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), said the fish is devastating to marine ecosystems here.

“Lionfish eat snapper, grouper, Spanish hogfish, shrimp, parrotfish, and much more,” she said. “When they eat environmentally important creatures like parrotfish, that eat algae and allow coral to grow, it impacts the whole reef.”

REEF, in Key Largo, hosted a packed class Wednesday evening for people seeking permits to remove the varmints from specially protected areas such as Looe Key and Molasses Reef.

The Indo-Pacific species was introduced to Atlantic waters from loosed aquarium occupants. Lionfish have no predators here, and can eat prey up to half their length, REEF says.

In the workshop, certified instructors explained how to capture the fish by putting a net in front and behind them. Spearing is not permitted in most protected areas, but even in other areas, netting is usually easier.

“Some lionfish are less than an inch,” said volunteer instructor Elizabeth Underwood. “The fish do not move much when they are approached, since they are not used to predators.”

She also explained how to avoid the fish’s venomous spines, which deliver a painful sting with side effects. Grab the sea creature by placing fingers between the cheeks, Underwood said.

On a positive note, the lionfish tastes very similar to hogfish, said Project Director Lad Akins, echoing a push in recent years to market the lionfish as seafood. “And it can easily be cleaned.

“You can fillet them like a regular fish,” he said. “If you are concerned with the spines, cut them off with a pair of scissors or cooking shears.”

Efforts have been underway to control the species.

“A Conch Key lobster fisherman we work with brought up 18,000 pounds of lionfish in a single season,” Underwood said. “They are the No. 2 caught fish next to Porgies.”

REEF also puts on a series of fishing derbies throughout Florida and the Caribbean with cash prizes for those who capture the most, largest and smallest lionfish.

Last year in Key Largo, the derby brought in 461 fish and bestowed awards of up to $1,000. For more information, visit

Alex Press, an intern with The Citizen, is a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Fishing, dolphins, and other reasons to visit Key Largo

Key Largo was made famous by the Bertie Higgins hit song and the Bogie and Bacall film, both named after this picturesque paradise. This most northern island in the Florida Keys is just an hour away from Miami’s airport, but seems worlds away.

Key Largo is known as the diving capital of the world and offers a whole host of activities, including fishing, swimming with dolphins and fun in the sun.

Luxury meets laid-back at Kona Kai Resort and Gallery, which overlooks Florida Bay and The Everglades in the heart of Key Largo and caters to the over 16 crowd.

The resort’s intimate 11 guest rooms and suites – all with appetizing names like The Mango Room and The Banana Suite – are decorated uniquely in Florida-chic. All are air-conditioned and are fully-equipped with a kitchen and access to barbecues, along with TVs, DVD players and Wi-Fi in the courtyard, but there are no annoying telephones in the room.

The Kona Kai has a private beach with kayaks and paddleboats available to guests, as well as tennis courts and hammocks. At the resort’s pool area – which includes a hot tub – guests can indulge in a massage and fresh-picked fruit from Kona Kai’s botanical gardens. The gardens can be seen either through a self-guided tour or a 90-minuted guided tour, which ends with ripe samples.

The resort also offers a free, two-hour “enviro tour,” which starts from its dock on a specially equipped Zodiac boat.

Adjacent to the reception area and newly-created meeting space is a small art gallery offering guests a chance to view and purchase original works of art from both new and established artists.

Away from the serenity of the Kona Kai, there’s a lot to do in Key Largo. If more art is up your alley, check out its many galleries, including Bluewater Potters Gallery and Key Largo Art Gallery. Or take a half hour drive south to quaint Islamorada and check out The Lobster Trap Gift Art Gallery and the Rain Barrel Artisan Village. 

A great place for shopping is at Shells, conveniently located only two blocks south of Kona Kai. Shells has some great finds, like kitschy souvenirs, brightly coloured beach wear, home decor items and beautifully hand-crafted jewelry.

Exploring nature is a must while in The Keys. Places to see include the Dagny Johnson Hammock and Botanical State Park, Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Florida Wild Bird Center.

A wonderful way to explore the canals of Key Largo and get a great view of the beachfront mansions is aboard the actual steamboat from the 1951 John Huston movie, The African Queen, starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. The restored boat is now 101 years old.

Be forewarned – the tour starts off very loudly with a steam whistle blow. If you’re nice to the captain, he will be more than happy to let you take the helm, while he tells tales of this vessel’s colourful past.

One of the most popular activities in Key Largo is a structured dolphin swim at Dolphins Plus – which includes one sea lion.

At this dolphin swim, small groups of four have their own trainers and one to two dolphins. Two at a time, you are asked to enter the salt-water lagoon for more than 20 minutes. Swimmers are taught to shake hands with the dolphins, and may even get a kiss in, if they’re lucky.

Another great place to check out is Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada, where you can feed the wild tarpon. Once there, you can try Partyboat Fishing on the Capt. Michael – a 65-foot deep-sea fishing vessel. The activity’s a great way to spend four hours, though a pill for seasickness is advised before boarding. Fishing on the open waters can be a bit rough.

Cruising The Keys is especially fun in a convertible, which is available at a number of car rental outlets, including Sixt Rent A Car.

For more information go to, or, or call 1-800-FLA-KEYS. To book a stay at Kona Kai Resort and Gallery, call 800-365-7829 or 305-852-7200 or visit their website at


Schools of dolphins signal the fall fishing season is near

Looking back through 20 years of fishing trip logbooks, I noticed September as being one of the most productive months of the year.

Even though the kids are back to school, and if the weather holds up, there are lots of opportunities for great action at the reef, offshore and throughout the backcountry.

Out in the backcountry, there were some goliath groupers caught at the wrecks west of the park boundaries over the weekend. Some redfish were caught, but the ones I saw were on the smaller side. A small handful of tarpon were caught.

Offshore, there was a 237-pound swordfish caught in the daytime aboard the Catch 22 out of Bud nÂ’ MaryÂ’s marina, which I would call the catch of the week.

Dolphin fishing was very good last week with some of the boats limiting out. (10 per person) Some of the schools that were found were gigantic, or “one-stop shopping,” as some like to say. It was reported that a single school of fish was a quarter-mile square. Big schoolies (4 to 8 pounds) and gaffers (up to 18 pounds) were found anywhere from seven miles on out to the deep blue Gulf Stream as far as 26 miles offshore.

At the hump areas, the current has been smoking to the northeast at about 4 to 6 knots, and there have been some good schools of blackfin and skipjack tunas showing up and settling in to stay awhile.

The shark population has swelled considerably at the hump and surrounding areas upon the arrival of the fall tuna run, as is common for September. The hump can be a stretch on a half-day trip, especially if you like to troll for wahoo and zigzag around on the way out. If time is limited and you are fishing a half-day trip, there have been plenty of yellowtail snapper biting at the usual locations from 50 feet to the bottom of the dropoff at the reef edge, which is around 100 feet deep.

On the deep side of the reef, and often over the sandy bottom flat coral, is where the mutton snappers can be found. Several were caught last week up to around 15 pounds. Richard DeLeon caught a beautiful 15-pound example on Saturday fishing from the SailorÂ’s Choice party boat out of Key Largo. He used live bait with a 15-pound spinning outfit in about 60 feet of water.

When I think of reef fishing and mutton snappers this week it makes me think of the master. Our fishing community mourns a painful loss as we said goodbye last week to one of the finest reef fishermen Islamorada has ever known. Capt. Kerry “Zilla” Price was taken away far too soon for my liking. But believing God’s timing is perfect, I shall focus on being thankful to have learned from Zilla and was able to know him well enough to call him a friend.

He was the first charter boat captain that made me feel truly welcomed into the Islamorada fleet. He gave us live bait when we needed it most on my first trip offshore of Islamorada. Consequently, this attracted me to stay in the Keys for 20-some-odd years to make a living on the water.

I will never ever forget backing up to the Heidi Baby that sunny afternoon to receive a 5-gallon bucket bustling with frisky pilchard replenishment while drifting right over the top of the hump and watching the frigate birds. It changed the course of events in my life for ever.

Thank you for so many great memories, Z. Now your spirit is flying with the frigate birds. We are gonna miss you brother.

Capt. Donald Deputy writes for The Reporter every other week. Reach him direct with your own personal fish tales and photos at

Key Largo Lionfish Derby is Sept. 14 – Sun

The Reef Environmental Education Foundation’s fourth annual Key Largo Lionfish Derby is Sept. 14 out of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The event features more than $3,500 in cash prizes and is the first derby in which divers will be allowed to spear lionfish in some of the existing no spearfishing zones of the upper Keys.

Register online or register in person before the 6:30 p.m. captains meeting on Sept. 13 at the park. Visit or call 305-852-0030.