March 19, 2021
By Lynn Burkhead
While bluebonnets are blooming, residents of Texas were reminded earlier this week that winter hasn't departed the scene just yet.
That reminder came out in the Panhandle near Amarillo, where a mid-March storm brought up to eight inches of snow, blizzard warnings, closed roads, zero visibility, and viscous winds strong enough to cause the collapse of a 130-foot radio tower near Borger.
Another grim reminder of a winter season that won’t be soon forgotten is the recent report on fish kills along the Texas Gulf Coast that followed last month's deadly siege of arctic weather.
The human toll was big, even by Texas outsized standards, since the deep snow and sub-zero cold in places resulted in several deaths, left 4.5 million without power, and resulted in the state's costliest natural disaster with at least $195 billion in damages as of this writing.
But the cost was even greater across the Lone Star State’s wild landscape as many native and exotic wildlife species suffered minor to significant losses due to the intense cold. Along the state's 3,359 miles of shoreline, the number of finfish and game fish lost to the subfreezing weather was even more severe, according to a report issued recently by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
"An estimated minimum of 3.8 million fish were killed on the Texas coast during the Feb. 2021 freeze event," stated TPWD in a news release.
"This fish kill consisted of at least 61 species. Non-recreational species contributed to 91 percent of the total mortality in numbers of fish. This includes species like silver perch, hardhead catfish, pinfish, bay anchovy and striped mullet. While not sought after by most anglers, non-game fish are ecologically important, providing food for larger game fish as well as adding to the overall diversity of Texas bays."
There were also significant impacts to the state's saltwater game-fish species.
"Recreationally important game species accounted for the other 9 percent of the total," noted TPWD. "Of that 9 percent, the dominant species included spotted seatrout (48 percent), black drum (31 percent), sheepshead (8 percent), sand seatrout (7 percent), red drum (3 percent), gray snapper (2 percent), and red snapper (less than 1 percent)."
Not included in those statistics were mortality figures for juvenile tarpon and snook, two species that while not common, are highly prized by anglers casting flies and conventional tackle in the state's more tropical waters between South Padre Island and Rockport.
TPWD biologists arrived at their figure of 3.8 million by first determining the geographic extent of the event and the distribution of the fish. Second, teams sampled areas and counted, measured and recorded each individual dead fish they discovered in an area. Then, using standards set in place by the American Fisheries Society, they were able to make an assessment of the entire coastal region after the freeze.
While the February freeze was uniformly felt up and down the coast, the deadly effects were admittedly worse in some areas.
"Both the upper and lower Laguna Madre bay systems were hit particularly hard by this event," stated TPWD. "The lower Laguna Madre had the highest mortality of spotted seatrout with an estimated 104,000 fish killed. That comprised 65 percent of the total estimated spotted seatrout killed and when combined with the upper Laguna Madre, it comprised 89 percent of the total estimated spotted seatrout mortality along the Texas coast.
"Similarly, the upper Laguna Madre had experienced black drum mortality at an estimated 82,600 fish and comprised 78 percent of the coastwide black drum killed."
How does last month's coastal freeze compare to similar events in the past?
From a numerical standpoint, the February 2021 fish kill was certainly the worst of the 21st Century, and in fact, the worst such event since the 1990s began. This year's fish kill is well beyond 1997, a severe freeze event that saw 328,000 fish killed along the Gulf Coast, 56 percent of those being game-fish species.
It's also well beyond the 290,000 fish killed in two successive freeze events back in February 2011 and beyond the 51,000 killed during cold weather in 2010 and the 35,000 killed back in 2004.
This year's freeze is also a far cry from the legendary winter of 1950-51. In late-January that winter, the last in a series of three cold waves severely impacted the entire coastline and resulted in particularly devastating effects in the Laguna Madre estuary between Corpus Christi and South Padre Island.
According to retired Houston Chronicle outdoors writer Shannon Tompkins, that freeze caused the loss of an estimated 46 million fish (finfish and game fish combined) and resulted in a total of only four fish being netted in Laguna Madre gill nets set by TPWD biologists that next fall.
While this year's fish kill is severe, it is also a far cry from the three disastrous coastal freezes during the 1980s that put a massive dent in sportfishing success along the Texas coast after killing as many as 32 million fish combined.
The December 1983 freeze started the parade of deadly fish kills when a lengthy cold snap—Dallas/Fort Worth stayed below freezing for 295-hours—impacted the state and caused the loss of some 14.4 million fish along the state's upper, middle, and lower coastline.
While that freeze in 1983 caused enormous losses in redfish and speckled trout stocks, the freezes in 1989 were equally catastrophic and maybe even more so. In the February 1989 freeze event, TPWD says that 11.3 million fish were wiped out from East Matagorda Bay south to the lower Laguna Madre. And in December 1989, the agency says that 6.2 million fish were killed throughout the entire coastal region, which runs from the Sabine River in the north to the mouth of the Rio Grande River in the south.
According to Carter Smith, executive director for TPWD, while the 2021 freeze was indeed severe, lessons learned in the past will aid any recovery that needs to take place this year. And one of those lessons is the need for some voluntary restraint to be exercised by coastal anglers, for the time being, at least.
"There are some important lessons from those historical events that we need to draw upon as we work to accelerate the recovery of our fish stocks, particularly speckled trout along the mid and lower coast," Smith noted in TPWD's news release.
"The most obvious, and immediate one for speckled trout is conservation, a practice where every Texas coastal angler can make a contribution right now. Practicing catch and release and/or keeping fewer fish to take home in areas like the Laguna Madre will only give us that many more fish to rebuild from as we augment populations through our hatchery efforts, and we carefully evaluate what regulation changes may be needed to foster a quicker recovery for our bays."
As has been the case following coastal freeze events that have been documented all the way back into the 1500s, the combination of sunshine and warming temperatures this spring and summer will start Texas coastal waters on the path towards recovery.
And as that process continues, the state's bout of severe winter weather will fade into distant memory as nature goes to work yet again to bring teeming numbers of baitfish and game fish back to Texas' salty waters.
"Using history as a guide, we believe our fishery has the potential to bounce back fairly quickly as it did after the 1980s freeze event," said Robin Riechers, TPWD's coastal fisheries division director.
"Based on our long-term monitoring, we saw the recovery in terms of numbers of spotted seatrout bounce back in approximately two to three years. This does not mean the fish size and age structure were the same as pre-freeze but the overall numbers did return in that timeframe."
In the meantime, as Texas coastal waters heal, what can anglers do to help?
"As fish stocks recover from this freeze event, anglers are encouraged to practice conservation by choosing to catch and release fish or to harvest only those fish they feel they need to take home to eat," said TPWD in its news release. "Conserving fish now can only aid in a quicker recovery."