We should be chafing at habitat loss, not cold spells

Yes, the hard freeze that killed so many fish around the state was bad, but losing fish-supporting habitat will have more serious and lasting effects on Florida’s fisheries.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Yes, the hard freeze that killed so many fish around the state was bad, but losing fish-supporting habitat will have more serious and lasting effects on Florida’s fisheries.

If you watched the news or read a newspaper during the past month you probably know that we had a spell of cold weather that killed some fish.

Snook appear to have been the hardest hit, although the freezing temperatures did take a toll on everything from pinfish to tarpon.

State officials acted swiftly and shut down snook season through the spring. There is talk of the closure extending into the fall, and perhaps even into next year, which wouldn't be a bad idea since it would give the stocks time to recover.

Snook are a tropical fish, and the Tampa Bay region is at the northern end of their range. When the temperature drops gradually, and the snook have time to adapt and move to warmer areas, i.e., residential canals and deep-water rivers, the fish tend to hold their own in cold weather. But if snook get caught out in the open during a hard freeze, they die.

Fish kills, such as the one we just experienced, have happened before and will surely happen again. There is nothing we can do about it. It is nature's way.

But even though this recent bout of chilly weather killed tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of fish, in the grand scheme of things, an occasional freeze isn't that big a threat to Florida's recreational fishing industry.

So what is? Red Tide? Pollution? Poaching? Commercial fishing? Wrong on all counts.

The greatest threat to the future of Florida's fish stocks is the destruction of habitat.

It is easy to get riled up when you see dead, bloated fish wash up at the boat ramp, but habitat loss, though more deadly, is much harder to get a handle on.

In the summer of 2007, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released a report entitled "The Future of Saltwater Fishing: A Vision for Florida's Marine Resources."

When the state's fishery managers ranked their priorities for the long-term health of the Florida's recreational fisheries, habitat enhancement and protection ranked at the top of the list.

Most anglers know that sea grass beds, oyster bars and mangrove shorelines play a role in the life cycle of most game fish. But few people understand that protecting water quality and habitat is a battle that must be fought miles from the ocean.

For years, groups such as the Sierra Club have worked to preserve the lakes, rivers and wetlands that eventually empty into estuaries such as Tampa Bay. Nutrients that are dumped into a waterway 100 miles inland will, sooner or later, find their way to the sea.

In recent years, recreational sport fishing groups have often found themselves at odds with the traditional environmental groups working for habitat protection. And while most anglers would never dream of keeping an undersized snook, few consider themselves environmentalists. The word "enviro" has a negative connotation, especially when brought up during any resource management discussions.

Last month's snook kill was disturbing, but in the grand scheme of things, it was just a minor setback for a species that has taken great strides in recent decades, thanks to sound research and management.

Snook stocks will recover in a year or two, but when it comes to habitat, there is no easy answer.

An FWC report entitled "Florida 2060" paints a grim picture. Fifty years from now, roughly 7 million acres of land, an area the size of Vermont, will be converted from rural and natural to urban uses.

This projected loss of wetlands and other natural areas will have a much greater impact on the fisheries than 1,000 freezes and Red Tides combined. But unlike those forces of nature, upon which we have no control, habitat destruction is an issue we can do something about.

Terry Tomalin, who has been on or in the water for 36 straight days in keeping with his New Year's resolution, can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8808.

We should be chafing at habitat loss, not cold spells 02/04/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 3, 2010 7:26pm]

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