At least 3.8 million fish on Texas coast killed by winter storm, TPWD says

Upper and Lower Laguna Madre bays in South Texas were hit the hardest

Substantial coastal flooding seen at Padre Island National Seashore. (National Park Service Photos)

SAN ANTONIO – The winter freeze killed nearly 4 million fish along the Texas coast in what officials are calling the largest fish kill event since the 1980s.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials released the grim news on Wednesday, nearly a month after fish began dying off due to the water’s frigid temperatures.

The Upper and Lower Laguna Madre bays which are off the South Texas Coast were hit particularly hard, according to TPWD.

About 65% of the total spotted seatrout that died during the winter weather event were killed in those bays and about 78% of the total black drum that died were killed in the Upper Laguna Madre.

The estimated 3.8 million fish killed in Texas consisted of 61 species, with 91% of those include non-recreational fish like hardhead catfish and pinfish.

Recreational fish — such as spotted seatrout, black drum, sheepshead, sand trout, red drum, gray snapper and red snapper — consisted of the other 9%.

“While some areas of the coast and some species of fish were clearly impacted more than others, overall this is the worst freeze-related coastal fish kill we have experienced since the 1980s,” Carter Smith, executive director of TPWD, said in a news release. “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.”

In 1983, about 14.4 million fish were killed across the coast during a freeze event. Millions of fish were also killed during freezes in February and December 1989.

Robin Riechers, the coastal fisheries division director, said at that time, it took about two to three years for speckled seatrout populations to recover.

“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,” he added.

Smith asked anglers to practice catch and release fishing as species rebuild populations.

Just before the freeze, TPWD closed fishing on the Texas coast that could have further impacted wildlife.

Fish in the San Antonio River were also greatly impacted.

The San Antonio River Authority said dead fish were seen along the waterway in the aftermath of the winter storm, which kept the city in the 10s and 20s in the week of Feb. 14.

Subfreezing temperatures in San Antonio and the surrounding area last week devastated wildlife both on land and in water.

Also last month, the Southern Refuge Rehab said hundreds of Mexican Free-tailed Bats were discovered dead under bridges in San Antonio.

Michelle Una Camara, Southern Refuge Rehab’s owner and president, said some bats froze to death while others died after falling from bridges.

Other wildlife species impacted by the storm include axis deer, blackbuck, nilgai antelope and multiple bird species, according to TPWD.

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Rebecca Salinas has worked in digital news for more than 10 years and joined KSAT in 2019. She reports on a variety of topics for KSAT 12 News.