Michael Mauled Florida Fisheries
Beyond its toll on humans, when Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida panhandle last month, it wreaked havoc on fisheries all along the state’s Gulf Coast. Reelers from the Panhandle to the Big Bend and Nature Coast areas could see residual effects for months to come.
Fish kills are regularly reported after hurricanes. And a major fish kill was reported in the Apalachicola River and the now-unfortunately-named Dead Lake in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
Strong winds — and Michael’s were some of the strongest to ever hit the region — push the water in lakes and rivers toward one side and kick up debris from the bottom. This, in turn, depletes the amount of oxygen in the system, killing fish and other oxygen-dependent creatures. A hurricane-caused sewage spill may also have contributed to the Apalachicola fish kill.
After months of fish kills caused by a red tide outbreak on Florida’s Gulf Coast, anglers were hopeful that Michael might improve the algal invasion. However, it seems that the hurricanes approach actually fed the red tide and its impact failed to dissipate the bloom.
Last week, a Miramar Beach resident reported a kill-off of several thousand small fish. Most were bait fish, although some redfish and catfish washed up on the shores of Choctawhatchee Bay, as well. Red tide is the suspected culprit.
So, in most places, the red tide is back. Although, by some accounts, it’s better than it was before Michael hit, the consensus is that the fish are now all but gone.
Red tide is hardest on bait fish. So are storm surges. Between the two, there are few bait fish left in the region to attract larger game fish. Where one might see grouper or other tropical species, there are now just sea urchins and crabs, which are generally not affected by the algae.
Thus, Michael seems to have dealt a decisive blow to fisheries — and the businesses dependent on them — that were already reeling from the red tide.
As hard as it’s been for sport, recreational and commercial fishermen, the shellfish industry really took it on the chin from Michael. The area hit by the hurricane is renowned for its clam and oyster beds. The storm destroyed many of the region’s beds, rendering them useless for a year or even longer.
The damage the storm did to estuaries, beaches and wetlands could also have a long-term impact on fisheries. Until the environment begins to respond to the catastrophe, we won’t have a good idea of the true extent of Michael’s impact on the region’s fisheries.
Governor Rick Scott and the state’s Senate delegation have requested that the U.S. Commerce Department declare a federal fishery resource disaster for the areas that were affected by Hurricane Michael. In their letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the delegation wrote:
This region of the state has long-relied upon both commercial and recreational fisheries, as well as shellfish aquaculture, to support economic growth and development….
Hurricane Michael has wreaked unparalleled devastation on the fishing industry in the Panhandle. Fishermen, aqua culturists, and harvesters have suffered extensive damage or outright destruction of vessels, facilities, equipment, traps, and other gear. These losses have been compounded by a decline in tourism both in the immediate aftermath of the storm and likely for the foreseeable future.