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Freeze of a Lifetime Threatens Florida Fauna

By G. B. Knowles
Florida canal snook stunnedIt’s been colder in Florida. The freezes in the early 1960s killed citrus groves en masse and decimated tropical animals like snook and manatees. It’s snowed more. In 1977, on January 17, my young cousin made a snowman in Tampa. It snowed in Miami that year and was the first recorded instance of snow in Bahamian history.
But there has never been a period of such prolonged cold in Florida. For two weeks the temperatures haven’t climbed out of the 50s and many of those nights saw lows in the 20s.
Possible snow flurries and the coldest weather yet is due for this weekend and into the first of next week. Temperatures are forecast to drop to 27 in Tampa, in the city, and that means frozen teens in the outlying country.
Snook and manatees, a pair of tropical creatures that are always at risk from dire cold, are already greatly stressed. Two days ago Captain Scott Moore reported massive kills of Crevalle jacks in the canals in Anna Maria city.These fish are usually the first to die in cold weather. Unlike snook (or manatees) jacks have to swim constantly to survive. This habit prevents them from seeking out and remaining in warm water outlets such as underwater springs, drainage run-offs or deep water pockets.
Jacks were also stressed and dying at Port Manatee, according to Captain Joe Webb. That deep water shipping port is a notorious death trap for tropical animals during freezes. Joe said huge snook are already turning belly up and struggling to survive and the worst of the cold is still to come.
Pockets of cold-stunned snook were reported all over the Gulf Coast. In the canals of Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island they are massed for warmth. But water temperatures there are already below 50 degrees. More stressed snook were reported from the canals of Snead Island.
With this many snook congregating near the open waters a large kill, perhaps the worst in a lifetime, is probable. Late Friday afternoon there were no stressed jacks or snook in the Fort Hamer region of the upper Manatee River. But that may be the only good news.
Snook once traveled far up the rivers to escape such killer freezes. In the freshwater reaches of the rivers and creeks they found natural artesian springs and heavily forested narrow streams that cut down on wind. But the building of power plants, artificial canals, deep water marinas and ports near the coast has led to many snook forgoing the journey upriver.
When an Arctic front is coupled with freezing air and high winds it cools off open waters very fast due to the wind chill factor. Hence, the current lengthy cold has led to a large number of snook becoming trapped in these areas. It’s too late for them to make the trip up the rivers and creeks.
Friday afternoon snow flurries were reported 100 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico as the Arctic front surges south to the Florida peninsula. With so many already-stressed snook close to the coast there is little hope against a major kill on Sunday night when the worst part of the freeze occurs. It might still snow in Florida this winter. But the cold air and the high winds alone are enough to cause great concern that a massive snook kill is in the offing.