FREEZE WOES: Cold water has killed fish and shrimp. More freezing weather is
expected and a predicted dry spring would make matters worse.
By LYNNE LANGLEY Of The Post and Courier staff
The unusually cold winter has frozen a significant number of Lowcountry shrimp and has killed
or slowed popular game fish, making them easier prey for birds, dolphin and fishermen. The situation
could get worse this month because more below-freezing weather is predicted. The loss of white shrimp
could mean a relatively poor shrimp baiting season next fall and low commercial catches this spring
State marine biologists expect to know more in March or April. Meanwhile,
the state wildlife
department asks sports fishermen voluntarily to catch fewer fish than the legal limit and to take fewer
fishing trips this winter and spring. "We consider this a fairly bold request on our part," said Charles
Farmer, spokesman for the Marine Resources Division of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Biologists will conduct a statewide survey next week, but the outlook really depends on what happens
this month and in early March, Farmer said Thursday. "We were sampling in a shallow creek in late January,
and I could reach down and catch mullet with my hands. That's how slowly they were moving," said Fred
Holland, director of the department's Marine Resources Research Institute.
A 2-foot-long red drum was floating in Toler's Cove near Mount Pleasant, and
boaters have reported
dead red drum along the Intracoastal Waterway, especially north of Charleston to Dewees and Capers islands. Lowcountry
residents also called the department about dead red drum and flounder in an impoundment, near-dead red
drum in holding ponds on Kiawah Island and dead spotted seatrout in Battery and Archers creeks in
Beaufort County. If the water temperature stays below 40 degrees for even a few days, department biologist
Dr. Charlie Wenner expects major problems and additional fish deaths. Young fish spend their first few
years growing and feeding in creeks. With some fish already dead, he said, there is no buffer if the
temperature drops further. If significant numbers of young spotted seatrout die or are eaten by predators,
there won't be so many 13- to 16-inch fish this fall, Wenner said. Stock would take several years to
recover because those young fish would never get to spawn; meanwhile fishermen wouldn't see the
larger trout they've been catching lately, Wenner said. Even more sensitive, shrimp start dying when
the water temperature falls below 47 degrees.
In late December and January, the water stayed between 42 and 47 degrees for
more than two weeks, department biologist Larry DeLancey said. "The prospects
are not good for a (commercial) roe shrimp season this spring. This is probably
worst condition we've seen since the 1980s, when the cold killed off several spring crops and subsequently
lessened fall catches," he said. When water drops below 47 degrees for seven to 10 days in a winter,
most of the overwintering shrimp are killed. Biologists collected only 10 live shrimp from Charleston
Harbor in a Jan. 10 trawl that pulled up more dead than live shrimp. The typical test trawl brings up
50 to 70 total shrimp, Farmer said. A Jan. 24 tow collected 32 live shrimp. Milder weather later in January
has helped shrimp, and survivors could spawn large numbers, Farmer said. Charleston already has logged
31 days below freezing and is expected to have seven more freezing days this month, said Freddy Vang of
the state climate center. "This is significant," Vang said, considering that the coast averages 27 freezing days
a year. To make marine matters worse, spring will bring less rainfall than usual, much like last fall, Vang said.
That changes the salinity of water and can affect creatures such as finfish and young shrimp near shore, in
estuaries and into rivers. The drought last year played a major role in the poor fall white shrimp catch last year,
DeLancey said. The shrimp baiting season was the worst since the department began monitoring it in 1987.
Up to 60,000 people a year participate in baiting. Some fish species and blue crabs feed heavily on shrimp.
The marine resources office hasn't yet assessed how other species are surviving the cold or the drop in shrimp.
All finfish in the immediate coastal waters are susceptible when the water temperature falls to the mid 40s, Farmer said.
Anyone who sees unusual fish activity or dead marine fish is asked to call the state Marine Resources Division in Charleston at 762-5076. To report illegal fishing anonymously, call Coast Watch (1-800-922-5431) toll-free 24 hours a day. It's illegal to gig red drum and spotted seatrout this month.