As winter storms and Arctic cold fronts impact much of the country east of the Rocky Mountains, Old Man Winter’s icebox visit prompts saltwater fishing closures in Texas
Baby, it’s cold outside … and then some.
And global warming? Well, not this week as an early January 2018 blast of Arctic air and a powerful snowstorm have walloped much of the country east of the Rocky Mountains.
So significant was the early January visit from Old Man Winter that Savannah, Ga. recorded 1.5 inches of snow and sleet, heavy snow was reported in the Low Country of South Carolina, and Tallahassee, Fla. residents enjoyed their first snowfall in nearly 30 years.
And that’s to say nothing of subfreezing – and even sub-zero – weather that gripped numerous states north of the Gulf of Mexico. The wintertime siege also brought a powerful nor’easter that rocked portions of the Atlantic coastline from North Carolina to Maine after the storm bombed out with hurricane-like low pressure readings, pounding coastal waves, high winds, and heavy snow.
Down in southern Texas, in a winter season that has already seen several inches of rare snowfall affect coastal communities this winter, the prolonged stretch of temperatures hovering near the freezing mark also brought a rare move by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
And that move by the Austin-based agency was a temporary closure to saltwater fishing along portions of the Texas Gulf Coast.
Designed to protect fragile Lone Star State saltwater fisheries during freezing weather, the TPWD rule during the first week of 2018 kept saltwater anglers off the water in a number of places for a couple of days.
That legal closure of affected fisheries came about thanks to the powerful blue norther cold front that struck the state the weekend before New Year’s Day, bringing snow, sub-freezing temperatures (Dallas stayed below freezing for nearly 80 consecutive hours), and even sub-zero wind chill readings along the Red River.
While the state’s most popular freshwater game fish species – largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, striped bass, and crappie – can generally withstand significant bouts of prolonged cold weather, saltwater game fish species like redfish, flounder, and spotted sea trout aren’t able to do the same.
And the effect of such cold temperatures – either from outright mortality or from making such shallow water saltwater fish extremely sluggish and vulnerable to anglers and predators – can bring trouble to Texas’ valuable saltwater fisheries for years to come.
“The high mortality that a freeze can cause may deplete fish stocks for years,” said Robin Riechers, director of TPWD’s Coastal Fisheries Division, in an agency news 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.”
According to TPWD, Texas has about two million acres of coastal bays and estuaries that are vulnerable to freezing weather. That’s because many such areas are shallow – the water is measured in mere inches in places – and deep-water areas offering some thermal protection are more limited.
While freezes have historically happened along the Texas Gulf Coast about once every 15 years, the state’s upper, middle and lower coastlines were especially hard hit during three major freeze events in the 1980s.
That included a record setting crippling freeze in late December 1983 when temperatures fell into the teens and stayed below freezing for nearly a week. That freeze – one of the worst ever recorded in Texas – left ice-covered bays and estuaries all along the state’s lengthy coastline, massive fish mortality, and significant damage to the state’s saltwater fisheries.
Another pair of severe freezes took place in 1989, one in February, the other in December, the two of them combining to kill a reported estimate of 17 million game fish along the Texas Gulf Coast. In the December event, the temperature dropped to a frigid 7 degrees in Houston and 16 degrees in Brownsville.
When the effects of those three freeze events are tallied, TPWD says that their estimates are of more than 30 million fish being killed in the aftermath of such cold weather.
Add in other freeze events in 1997 (TPWD says up to 300,000 fish were killed along the state’s lower coastline with some 75 percent of that number comprised of redfish, black drum, and spotted sea trout) and 2004 (35,000 fish were killed in the lower Laguna Madre) and the Lone Star State decided to take action and do what it could.
To that end, in an effort to help reduce the impact of such severe cold weather events along the state’s salty shoreline, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission adopted rules in 2005 that enabled the TPWD executive director to enact temporary emergency closures of vulnerable saltwater fisheries until the freeze event has ended.
Since the rule was enacted more than a decade ago, strong freeze events have been recorded in 2010 (TPWD says that 51,000 fish were killed along the middle and lower coast) and in 2011 where upwards of 200,000 silver perch, hardhead catfish, and mullet were lost.
As the current January 2018 cold snap runs its course, it remains to be seen what, if any, significant impact has occurred to Texas’ saltwater fisheries.
To that end, TPWD advises anglers and coastal residents to report any freeze related fish kills or large numbers of cold-stunned and/or sluggish fish. Such reports can be made by contacting the agency’s Law Enforcement Communications office at (281) 842-8100 or (512) 389-4848.