As area temps begin to climb back into the 70s this weekend and our fingers and toes regain some feeling, local wildlife, particularly our area fish, may take quite a bit longer to recover.
Keys residents battling cabin fever who may have opted to stroll along the island chain’s south side beaches may notice an excess of frozen fish along the shore, and boaters trolling for fish have noted what many deemed the largest fish kill in more than a decade.
Marathon resident Frank Bennett was strolling along his Gulfside dock Monday afternoon when he noticed hundreds of small dead fish floating in the waves of seaweed brought in by the chilly winds.
FWC biologist Paul Barbera said he’d spotted a temperature drop as low as 47 degrees at the buoy off Long Key.
“That is pretty extreme,” Barbera noted, adding that it will be several days before solid data will be collected. “Normally in the wintertime, temperatures below 70 are short lived on the reef.”
“It will take a few days before we know how large scale this fish kill will be,” Barbera added.
Wildlife officer Bobby Dube said the cold weather had clearly affected the local fishery as his office was in the process of responding to reports of several fish kills Monday afternoon.
The FWC Fish Kill Hotline received more than a hundred reports of fish kills over the past few days, and spokesperson Carli Segelson said the majority of those have been related to the cold weather.
Extended periods of unusually cold weather can kill fish outright by cold stress or make fish more susceptible to disease. Monroe County’s warm-water species, including the popular game fish snook, are particularly vulnerable to cold temperatures.
Fish affected by the cold may appear lethargic and may be seen at the surface where the water may be warmer from the sun.
Biologist Susan Hilber with FWC’s Research Institute in St. Petersburg said her office had fielded several reports of fish kills across the state while simultaneously trying to catch up with messages left over the weekend.
“It’s particularly hard for the tropical species down in the Keys,” Hilber explained. “When temperatures are below normal for an extended period of time, the water temperature drops dramatically. This can be particularly devastating for fish in more shallow waters.”
The unseasonably chilly temps have been lingering for more than a week and have threatened wildlife across the state.
FWC is cautioning hunters in South Florida wildlife management areas to keep an eye out for nonnative Burmese pythons out sunning themselves in the middle of the day.
Biologists with the Research Institute have also rescued two manatees in Palm Beach and Pinellas Counties.
Ryan Butts of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon reported admitting eight new patients before noon on Monday.
“That’s in addition to the 50 or so turtles we were already caring for and 20 from outside Monroe County due to the statewide mass stranding event,” Butts said. “We’re expecting many, many more over the next few days even after the water warms up some.”
Particularly in the shallow inshore waters surrounding the Keys, smaller fish essentially paralyzed by the sudden colder water, are expected to continue washing up along our beaches.