Lynn Burkhead — As freeze memory fades, TPWD tallies deadly cost

Herald Democrat
Weeks after the disastrous February 2021 freeze in Texas, TPWD coastal fisheries biologists have issued a report on how deadly the cold wave was for fish species up and down the state's saltwater coastline. TPWD says that last month's arctic outbreak caused the most severe coastal fish kill of the 21st century.

While spring is definitely in the air, thoughts of winter still persist as this week’s strong cold front reminded with every gust of northerly wind.

It was even worse on Wednesday in the Texas Panhandle where a mid-March blizzard dumped up to eight inches of wind driven snow, closed roads, brought blizzard warnings and even caused the collapse of a 130-foot radio tower near Borger.

In fact, a midday video from the National Weather Service office in Amarillo showed almost zero visibility outside as 40+ mph winds turned the heavy late season snowfall into a complete whiteout.

So much for blooming wildflowers out there, huh?

Thoughts of winter also persist along the Texas Gulf Coast where officials with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department continue to assess the impacts to coastal fisheries after last month’s historic barrage of frigid temperatures and snowfall deep into the heart of the Lone Star State.

While there may be some more information forthcoming from electrofishing and creel surveys, the agency feels that it has enough of a handle on the February Freeze of 2021 to issue a report.

According to TPWD in its news release about the Great Freeze of 2021, the winter weather that started around Valentine’s Day weekend has led to a significant fish kill event along the coast.

That kill became almost inevitable when sub-freezing weather plunged southward across the Red River and didn’t stop until it has gone past the Rio Grande River.

As coastal waters chilled rapidly after the onslaught of low temperatures into the teens and 20s along portions of the Gulf Coast, fish that couldn’t find thermal refuge in deeper water began to struggle and even die.

After assessing the coastal fish kill in the weeks following the February freeze, TPWD biologists say that the fish kill was indeed significant in multiple bay systems up and down the spacious Texas Gulf Coast.

How bad were the impacts from the freezing weather?

“An estimated minimum of 3.8 million fish were killed on the Texas coast during the Feb. 2021 freeze event,” stated a TPWD news release on the topic.

“This fish kill consisted of at least 61 species. Non-recreational species contributed to 91% 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.”

What were the impacts of the freeze to fish that anglers readily target along the upper, middle, and lower Texas coastline?

“Recreationally important game species accounted for the other 9% of the total,” stated TPWD. “Of that 9%, the dominant species included Spotted Seatrout (48%), Black Drum (31%), Sheepshead (8%), Sand Seatrout (7%), Red Drum (3%), Gray Snapper (2%), and Red Snapper (<1%).”

While the freeze was uniformly felt up and down the coast, the deadly effects were worse in some areas than they were in other locales.

“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% of the total estimated Spotted Seatrout killed and when combined with the Upper Laguna Madre, it comprised 89% 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% of the coastwide Black Drum killed.”

How does last month’s freeze compare to other disastrous cold weather outbreaks in the state’s history?

TPWD says that while the February 2021 freeze event appears to have been larger than any other fish kill event seen since the 1980s — including freezes seen in the 1990s and 2000s — it isn’t as bad as the legendary freezes of the 1980s.

From a numerical standpoint, last month’s freeze was certainly the worst of the 21st Century, and in fact, the worst since the 1990s began. Back in 1997, a freeze event saw 328,000 fish killed along the Gulf Coast, although it should be pointed out that TPWD says that a full 56-percent of those killed in 1997 were game fish species.

While this year’s fish kill is severe, it is a far cry from the three disastrous coastal freezes that put a massive dent in sportfishing along the Texas coast for much of the 1980s. After the catastrophic freeze event in December 1983, TPWD says that 14.4 million fish were killed and all geographic areas of the region were severely impacted.

While that freeze in 1983 all but wiped out 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 from Sabine River to the mouth of the Rio Grande.

According to Carter Smith, executive director for TPWD, while the 2021 freeze was indeed a deadly one, it isn’t as crippling as the freezes endured a generation ago.

“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,” said Smith, in a TPWD 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 the many freezes of the past, the sunshine of spring and summer will soon be in full command and will go to work to warm up the coastal surf, bays, and estuary backwaters found up and down the Texas Gulf Coast. When that happens, wintertime weather will fade into a distant memory as Creation goes to work again with a healing process that will bring baitfish and game fish species back from the frigid weather experienced four weeks ago.

“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, in a news release.

“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, what can you do to help if you travel to the Texas Gulf Coast with a rod and reel in your hand this year?

“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 the agency’s news release. “Conserving fish now can only aid in a quicker recovery.

From where I sit, that’s good advice regardless of the season or the weather, especially as our state’s population grows and our rich angling resources come under increasing pressure.

Because even when Old Man Winter hasn’t worn out his welcome for months to come, doing what you can to catch, release and conserve our fishing resources here in the Lone Star State makes good sense, both now and in the future.