Lynn Burkhead — Emergency coastal action taken after February freeze

Herald Democrat
Last month's historic freeze left millions of baitfish and game fish dead in saltwater locations along Texas' lengthy coastline, including spotted sea trout in the upper and lower Laguna Madre regions between Corpus Christi and Brownsville.

A little more than a month ago, the expectation was that the March 2021 meeting of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission would be pretty normal.

At that online meeting, something which has become commonplace during the past year as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes in the way that we live our lives and conduct our business, everything was thought to be fairly routine — even if it was in the virtual world.

Commissioners were expected to hear various reports on regulation proposals for hunting and fishing rule changes in 2021-22, hear support and/or opposition to those rule changes from constituents, and then cast a few votes and call the day’s meeting good.

But then came the massive arctic air intrusions in mid-February, a cold wave attack that pushed all the way through the state to the Gulf Coast and the Rio Grande Valley. With sub-freezing temperatures and even significant snowfall in some of those regions, yesterday’s meeting became anything but routine.

Why? Because the Great Arctic Outbreak of February 2021 contributed to a sudden drop in water temperatures along the Lone Star State’s lengthy coastline, eventually resulting in the loss of millions of finfish and game fish.

And it’s that fish kill — the worst since the destructive freezes of December 1983, February 1989, and December 1989 — that forced the TPW Commission to take emergency action yesterday.

That action will change the current bag and size limits on spotted sea trout — speckled trout as many anglers know the popular species — for the upper and lower Laguna Madre.

According to the TPWD news release, the new regs for trout in the bays and beachfront of the Laguna Madre include: a three fish bag limit there; a minimum size length of 17 inches; a maximum size length of 23 inches; and no fish over 23 inches being able to be retained by anglers.

Those changes will take effect in a few days on April 1 and are valid for up to 120 days. But TPWD also warns that they could be extended for another 60 days if that is warranted.

Yesterday’s decision by the Commission comes after several weeks of hard, smelly work as TPWD coastal biologists have gone about the task of finding, counting, identifying, and documenting what fish species were killed and where those fish kills took place along the Lone Star State’s lengthy coastline.

It didn’t take long before those coastal fisheries biologists knew the hard truth: while not the worst fish kill ever seen in Texas, it was indeed the worst one that has happened since the 21st Century dawned.

"An estimated minimum of 3.8 million fish were killed on the Texas coast during the Feb. 2021 freeze event," stated TPWD in a previous news release about its assessment efforts.

"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."

Game fish species were less affected, but they obviously weren’t immune either.

"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)."

While not noted in TPWD’s news release, social media accounts — particularly from the state’s enthusiastic saltwater fly fishing community — also showed that there was some mortality for juvenile tarpon and snook.

While those two species aren’t extremely common in Texas coastal waters, they have made major inroads and have expanded northward from the Brownsville Ship Channel and South Padre Island region since the disastrous freezes of the 1980s. They are also highly prized by anglers casting flies and conventional tackle in the state's more tropical waters between South Padre Island and Rockport.

If you’re familiar with the long curve of the Lone Star State’s coastline — which includes upper, middle, and lower sections — you might have noticed that ironically enough, some of the worst fish kill damage actually happened the further south one went. In fact, the emergency regulations put into place yesterday are all south of Corpus Christi.

"Both the upper and lower Laguna Madre bay systems were hit particularly hard by this event," stated TPWD in a news release. "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.

TPWD says that the emergency action that the Commission took yesterday will be reevaluated once the agency gains additional data gathered by its coastal biologists during spring sampling efforts. That information will give the agency a better view of the freeze and its overall impact to the state’s saltwater fish populations.

“I am confident that our spring sampling will help us get a better picture of the impacts to fish populations since the February fish kill event,” said TPWD coastal fisheries division director Robin Riechers.

“In the meantime, the Commission took the action to help conserve the fish we have now and accelerate recovery.”

What will these emergency regulations accomplish? TPWD biologists indicate that they expect this type of management action to result in an increase in population numbers since more mature fish are left in the water to spawn during the spring through summer spawning season.

With any luck, this natural reproduction, along with spotted seatrout production at TPWD’s coastal fish hatcheries, will accelerate recovery up and down the coastal waters region.

And one day, the Great Freeze of February 2021 will be a distant memory, one that people will find hard to imagine as they wade and fish in warm saltwater locales where the fishing is just as good as the legendary angling tales that spawned it.