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Florida Cold Kills Result in Fisheries Changes

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Dead fish litter the beaches in Florida after the recent cold weather Dead fish litter the beaches in Florida after the recent cold weather

The severe cold that gripped Florida in early January resulted in high levels of fish mortality according to the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.

Snook appear to have been hardest hit, but bonefish and tarpon were killed as well. In response, on January 15, 2010, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission closed harvest on these three species. Catch and Release fishing is still allowed. And there is a silver lining in this cloud.

The cold weather in Florida has caused mortalities of numerous coastal gamefishes.  The night temperature reached down to freezing along coastal areas in the central and southern part of the state three or four nights in a row.  Reports of dead bonefish came from in the Upper Keys and scattered reports of small tarpon statewide. The FWC has closed these fisheries to harvest even though few tarpon are kept, and the limit on bonefish is only one per person per day (yes, some are still harvested in South Florida). Catch and release fishing for these species is still allowed. The FWC is taking this proactive, precautionary approach to ensure the long-term health of the fisheries. As temperatures warm, guides and anglers are finding hungry fish coming in from deeper waters.

In addition to bonefish and tarpon, snook took a big hit. The most recent estimates were of >100,000 snook dead statewide. If true, this would be almost 7% of the total snook population in Florida.  The FWC has responded by canceling the opening of the snook season, due to open February 1. Adding this to the summer closed season, this means that snook can't be harvested until fall.

Read the January 15 FWC press release that closes harvest of these species.

Read the January 17 FWC press release that states that catch and release fishing is still allowed.

The silver lining - we and our colleagues at University of Miami have been collecting some of the dead bonefish and tarpon for biological samples. From these fish we are able to get tissue for genetics, fish length and otoliths (earbones) for aging fish, stomach contents for diet analysis, and measurements for morphometric analysis, and more. So not all is lost. We are gaining some important biological information from this sad event.

South Florida News Article

While the national news focuses on the impact of the record-breaking cold on the Florida agriculture industry, the impact of the cold on the fish is largely ignored. So here is perhaps your first glimpse into the impact of freezing temperatures on flats species. In the Florida Keys, there are many reports of dead bonefish. In various locations of south and southwest Florida, tarpon kills have been reported (mixed in with many thousands of snook). Even guides in the northern Bahamas are concerned.

While this long stretch of cold weather is unwanted, it is not unnatural, and it is a phenomenon the fish and habitats have been through before (the last such severe episode was in 1989).  But this brings with it an opportunity for fisheries conservation - the better the health of the fish populations and the habitats, the better the fish populations will be able to recover from these types of events. Since with this weather even those of you who live in Florida aren't fishing, use this event and your time cooped up indoors to contact some friends who aren't yet BTT members and get them to join. And please continue to support BTT's conservation efforts in Florida and elsewhere.

Coverage in the Miami Herald

If you are aware of any media coverage of the weather releated fish kills in Florida or The Bahamas, please let us know and we'll post it in the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust news.

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