Staff Report- TheRecordLive

AUSTIN – Preliminary assessments by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department coastal fisheries biologists suggest the damage from back-to-back freeze events that impacted marine life from Galveston to Brownsville could have been much worse.

Forecasts of prolonged sub-freezing temperatures along the Texas coast during the first week in February had biologists bracing for major fish kills the likes of which had not been seen in more than two decades. A second, less severe freeze wave hit the Texas coast less than a week later.

Coastal fisheries populations suffered devastating losses during three freeze events in the 1980s, with combined estimates of more than 30 million dead fish. In the aftermath of the freezes of 2011, TPWD officials are breathing collective sighs of relief. Based on early findings, the total numbers of fish impacted will be above that seen during 2010 (51,000 fish killed along the mid and lower coast), 2004 (35,000 fish killed in the lower Laguna Madre) and 1997 (200,000-300,000 fish killed in the upper and lower Laguna Madre) freezes, but lower than the three freezes in the 80s (1983 and two in 1989).

Biologists suggest the total impacts from this year’s fish kill in terms of numbers appear similar to the freeze of 1997, but the species makeup is drastically different. During 1997, spotted seatrout, black drum and red drum comprised roughly 75 percent of the impact. During this year’s freeze, it appears more than 85 percent of the impacted fish are non-recreational species, like silver perch, hardhead catfish, and mullet. Of the recreational species impacted this year, black drum appear to make up a larger component with spotted seatrout, red drum, sand seatrout, sheepshead, whiting, snook, gray snapper, Atlantic croaker and gag grouper making up a much smaller percentage.

“It could be that most fish had time to escape to deeper water before the freeze hit,” theorized Rebecca Hensley, TPWD coastal fisheries regional director. “We didn’t see the beaches covered in ice and very large numbers of dead fish like during the ‘80s freezes.”

Hensley also credits reduced mortality on game fish to conservation measures taken during the freeze, including a temporary fishing closure in deep water thermal refuges and voluntary stoppage of barge traffic in the lower Laguna Madre and through the land cut in the upper Laguna Madre.

“We appreciate the conservation ethic displayed by anglers during and immediately after the freeze when these fish were vulnerable,” said Robin Riechers, TPWD director of coastal fisheries. “It definitely helped reduce fish mortality.”

The recent freeze also saw a huge jump in the number of cold-stunned sea turtles recovered and the high survival rates. More than 1,500 sea turtles were recovered thanks to a massive network of volunteers and state and federal agency efforts.

“There were people out on the water gathering turtles immediately once the freeze hit and that made a huge difference,” said Riechers. “Turtle survival has been fairly high compared to previous freezes.”

In past years for similar coastal freezes, cold-stunned sea turtles in Texas have typically been held in captivity to recuperate for weeks until sea water temperatures rose. But two factors prompted Texas wildlife workers to return turtles to the wild faster this time. First, experts in Florida who’ve had similar recent experiences with cold-stunned turtles advised returning them to the water as soon as possible. Second, the sheer numbers of rescued turtles overwhelmed available facilities, so that many were on floors or wrapped in blankets, and experts say it’s better for them to return to water as soon as possible.

Within days of rescue, sea turtles were returned en masse with volunteers forming assembly-line chains to shuttle turtles down to the water’s edge on beaches near Corpus Christi and along the South Padre Island seashore.

Biologists say they won’t know the full impact to coastal fisheries from the freeze until annual sampling surveys are conducted later in the spring.