By Gaige Davila
Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) biologists are assessing a large-scale fish kill across the Texas coast after a cold front froze the state.
In the Laguna Madre, TPWD biologists are currently assessing the freeze’s impact on game and foraging fish and were not available for an interview, TPWD Coastal Fisheries Division Information Specialist Julie Hagen told the PRESS.
Along the coasts of Port Mansfield, Port Isabel, South Padre Island, Laguna Vista, and South Bay, referred to TPWD as the Lower Laguna Madre, the department has documented fish kills in the Brownsville ship channel and the Long Island, also known as the “Y.” The PRESS observed fish kills in Port Isabel, Laguna Vista and South Padre Island.
TPWD has documented, in their rapid assessments, that non-recreational fish like pinfish, spot, silver perch, gulf menhaden, mullet and other foraging fish were the most impacted by the freeze. Recreational fish like spotted seatrout, redfish, sheepshead, grey snapper, snook, black drum and tarpon have also been found dead by guides, anglers and boaters along the Texas coast.
TPWD said that the extent of fish kills spreads through the entirety of the Texas Coast, with bay systems south of Galveston Bay being the hardest hit.
Fish are killed by extreme cold if they are unable to take refuge in deeper, more temperature stable water, TPWD wrote in a press release. Spotted seatrout, or more commonly known in the area as speckled trout, are more susceptible to dying from freezing weather than other game fish.
TPWD closed fishing on the Texas coast for two days on Feb. 15 and Feb. 16, trying to prevent fish from being harvested as countless numbers of marine life were found cold-stunned or dead in the Laguna Madre. TPWD has not currently closed or limited fishing in any part of the state.
“The high mortality that a freeze can cause may deplete fish stocks for years,” Robin Riechers, director of TPWD’s Coastal Fisheries Division said in a press release. “Protection of the surviving fish during the few days when they are especially vulnerable to capture would likely shorten the time period for overall recovery of coastal species, especially spotted sea trout.”
In 1989, a major freeze brought temperatures in Brownsville down to 16 degrees fahrenheit, killing around 11 million fish, TPWD estimated. TPWD last closed the Texas coast in January 2018, during a freeze event that did not kill a “significant” amount of fish.
The extent of last week’s freeze will be documented up until June, as TPWD starts their spring gill net sampling, beginning in mid-April. Until then, TPWD’s Coastal Fisheries Division will consult anglers and guides at boat ramps.
The Texas International Fishing Tournament (TIFT) stated in a Facebook post that they are monitoring the fish kill event as well.
“In light of the recent freeze and the impact it has had on the lower Laguna Madre, we want you to know that TIFT is monitoring the situation and looking into possible rule modifications for 2021 in an effort to preserve and sustain our local fisheries,” the post read.
Tony Reisinger, Cameron County Extension Agent for Coastal & Marine Resources, said it still is too early to observe the true extent of the fish kill event, but its impact is present.
“It’s a little early, because the water is just starting to warm up,” Reisinger said, saying while the area still had a north wind, foraging species like pinfish were what he was seeing the most. Recreational species, like speckled trout, were few, other than two large ones Reisinger saw at the Holly Beach shore near Laguna Vista. Freshwater fish like tilapia and catfish, however, were affected heavily in resacas around Cameron County. In the Laguna Madre, once the water warms and the fish start decomposing, they will start rising, making it easier to assess the extent of the kill.
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