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Vultures drawn by fish killed during cold snap pose hazard for MacDill flights

Fish kills like this one on the Little Manatee River in January 2010 draw vultures. That worries officials at MacDill Air Force Base. [SKIP O'ROURKE   |   Times]
Fish kills like this one on the Little Manatee River in January 2010 draw vultures. That worries officials at MacDill Air Force Base. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]
Published Jan. 12, 2018

TAMPA — The recent cold snap has been more than just an inconvenience for Floridians. It's been tough on fish and potentially hazardous to flights at MacDill Air Force Base.

The National Weather Service says temperatures in early January fell to as low as 35 degrees on Jan. 5 and 40 degrees three days earlier. As a result, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has received more than 110 calls as of Jan. 11 about fish kills across the state, according to spokeswoman Kelly Richmond.

Popular game fish like snook, jack crevalle and pompano are particularly susceptible to death and disease as a result of the cold, said Richmond.

But the folks at MacDill had concerns beyond the cost to the environment.

The more fish die, the more that scavengers like vultures show up to feed on the carcasses. The more vultures, the greater the chance flight operations will be affected.

Base wildlife biologists estimate around 1,000 fish, mostly tilapia and some snook, died as a result of the sudden temperature change.

On Thursday, base officials posted a notice on the MacDill Facebook page urging people to clean up any dead fish they find.

"These scavengers can actually be dangerous to our air crews and KC-135s," the notice says, "so it's important that we clean up the area as quickly as possible."

In addition, base housing officials reported dead fish near family housing and were working to remove the remains there, as well.

The cleanup was swift enough that no aircraft operations were ultimately affected, said Senior Airman Bradley Tipton.

"There hasn't been an increase in the bird population resulting from this event, but vultures are opportunistic hunters are clearly taking advantage of the free meal," Tipton said. Base personnel "worked quickly to both deter the vultures and move the dead fish away from the airfield. We have not had any issues with operations and the vulture population has since returned to their normal patterns."

For MacDill, concerns about wildlife are very real.

In 2014, a jet had to abort takeoff after being hit by a fish dropped by a bird. Two years before that, a Canadian jet was hit by a bird and badly damaged.

Since 1987, U.S. military aircraft have suffered more than a half-billion dollars damage from 10 species of birds recorded, according to a master's thesis written by U.S. Air Force Maj. Jason Trudel.

Wildlife has taken a toll on civilian aircraft as well, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, with nearly 120,000 collisions at more than 1,600 U.S. and more than 500 foreign civilian airports between January 1990, and December 2011.

All told, the incidents have claimed about 300 lives, according to figures compiled by U.S. and Canadian military officials and a civilian pilots organization. One of the most famous aircraft crashes involving a bird strike took place Jan. 16, 2009, when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 landed safely in the Hudson River after hitting a flock of geese. It made a hero of pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.

In 2012, a Canadian air force jet landing at MacDill hit a vulture. The jet arrived safely but was badly damaged.

Meanwhile, the cold weather has made fishing challenging, but not impossible, Pat Damico, who writes a fishing column for the Tampa Bay Times, said last week.

"We were out yesterday and caught a bunch of fish," said Damico, adding that fish can sense a looming cold front and like to feed ahead of time.

But long-term, Damico said, he has concerns about the fish population, especially snook.

"Of course I'm concerned," he said. "Jack crevalle and snook can't take it. If they don't find deeper water, they will die."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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