Freezing winter weather dealt a devastating blow to some of southern Hillsborough County's tropical fish farms, with seven losing more than half their stock.
Statewide, about 25 percent of the industry's inventory died after temperatures dropped in early January, the Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association said. Farms in Hillsborough and Polk counties make up about 80 percent of the state's $49-million industry.
"It was the worst weather event that the tropical fish industry's had in a while," said Tim Hennessy, president of EkkWill Waterlife Resources in Gibsonton. "But it took some time afterwards for people to really realize the impact of it."
Days after temperatures dropped, dead fish started floating to the surface and birds began to feast.
"Sometimes you don't know until you clean the pond and find there's nothing there," said Art Rawlins, the president of the Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association.
On his 27-acre farm in Lithia, Rawlins estimates hundreds of thousands of fish died in the freeze. That's about $200,000 and 60 percent of his inventory — a loss significant enough to qualify for federal aid provided to smaller farms through the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program.
Losses in Hillsborough County could be up to $3-million, said Donald Royster, executive director of the Hillsborough County Farm Service Agency, which administers the program here. Farmers get about 50 percent of the average market price for their losses, he said.
In most cases, Royster said, farmers reporting losses raised fish in uncovered ponds.
Methods like raising fish in greenhouses or covering ponds with plastic are too costly for some types of fish, Hennessy said.
Pumping water into ponds is a common method of fighting the cold. But this year, some fish farmers in De Soto County found themselves competing with citrus farmers for a dwindling water supply.
"We couldn't get the water we needed out of the ground to keep the fish warm," Hennessy said.
At EkkWill, which owns more than 170 acres in Hillsborough and De Soto counties and ships fish to small and large retailers all over the world, more than 1-million fish died. Feeder guppies and algae-eating plecostomus were hardest hit. Hennessy estimates the loss at $100,000.
But not all farms saw significant impact.
Damage depended on the farm's location, the depth of ponds and the types of protective covering used.
"Some had zero and some had a 90 to 95 percent loss. It was hit and miss," said David Boozer, executive director of the state association.
Hillsborough has been a home for tropical fish farming since the 1930s.
The area's typically warm weather makes it ideal for raising tropical fish, and Tampa International Airport provides a convenient way to transport them.
Even for fish farmers who weathered the recent freeze, however, times are tough.
"It's slow," said Bruce Kraus, owner of Bruce Kraus Tropicals in Wimauma. "Nobody's spending any money."
Despite recent local declines in the fish supply, prices are not expected to rise because farmers and suppliers must compete with imports. Aquaculture in Hillsborough County suffered a $7-million drop in sales between 2005 and 2006, according to county statistics.
But Rawlins, who started his Lithia farm in 1968, said business will bounce back, like it has in years past when freezes and hurricanes struck.
"That's part of farming. You just can't let it make you bitter," he said. "You just suck it up and get prepared for the next one."
Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2454.