Ike Impact on Coastal Fisheries Mixed, but Overall May be Beneficial

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Sand SeatroutAUSTIN, Texas — Hurricane Ike, which devastated communities and residents of the upper Texas Gulf coast Sept. 12-13 may ultimately prove beneficial to the marine organisms that also call the area home.

That’s the preliminary conclusion of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Coastal Fisheries Division biologists.

“We may have some initial mortality due to black water,” said Lance Robinson, TPWD’s regional Coastal Fisheries Division director for the upper coast. “But that black water is also very nutrient rich. As it enters the bays it should result in a boom in primary productivity. We would expect to see good recruitment of game fish species in the next year or two.”

So-called “black water” is the anoxic or oxygen-depleted soup of decaying matter that is often left behind after flood or storm surge events. Areas around the eastern periphery of Galveston Bay were reported to have experienced a 15-foot or more storm surge from Hurricane Ike, and foul-smelling, brackish water still stands in many inland areas of the mainland there.

Robinson pointed out that hurricanes are natural phenomena and highly mobile and adaptable estuarine organisms are well-equipped to deal with them.

In fact, the first week of the fall gill net sampling season showed there are good numbers of recreationally important fish still in the Galveston Bay system. The sampling, now in its 33rd year, started in Galveston Bay three days after Ike passed through. Biologists say the data from the long-term monitoring program will detect any significant impacts on adult finfish populations.

“It’s early, but we’ve had some real productive gill net catches. We really haven’t seen any problems with dissolved oxygen in the areas we’ve set,” said TPWD’s Galveston Bay Ecosystem Leader Bill Balboa. “The fish seem healthy, and we’ve seen lots of them, of all species.”

Tree OysterIke’s Impact on Commercial Fisheries
Oysters, like the other animals that make their living in the highly variable conditions of Texas bays, are well-prepared to survive calamities like hurricanes. Oysters can even change their sex from year to year to increase production if the environment demands it.

What they can’t do is get out of the way, and sedimentation over oyster reefs is a real concern.

“We have some side scan sonar data we’ve been collecting of oyster reefs,” Robinson said. “We’ll redo those on some transects to see if there was an impact on oyster reefs.”

On the Texas coast, there are almost always enough oyster larvae, but sometimes not enough hard substrate for them to attach to and grow to maturity.

Water quality in Galveston Bay, with numerous small oil and fuel spills as well as organic contaminants from decomposing livestock and flooded septic systems is a concern, and is monitored by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Currently, the Texas Department of State Health Services has the bay closed indefinitely for molluscan shellfish harvest.

“The public oyster season doesn’t open until November, and we would hope that water quality would improve between now and then,” Robinson said.

Many bay shrimpers moved their boats before the storm, though some were sunk or destroyed during Hurricane Ike. Some areas that were known to be trawlable before Ike now may be filled with submerged debris.

Infrastructure Hit Hard
Perhaps the biggest challenge Hurricane Ike brings commercial and recreational anglers alike is the storm’s impact on infrastructure. Judging from initial surveys of marinas, canal subdivisions and debris fields, hundreds of boats were severely damaged or destroyed by the storm.

Gulf KingfishIn a survey of 92 boat ramps around the Galveston Bay system last week, Balboa noted that just 29 were accessible. He said he found no functioning bait houses (in fact, many were destroyed), and the availability of fuel, ice and power at dockside is severely limited or nonexistent.

“From a fisherman’s standpoint, it will be fine. It will just be an inconvenience for recreational anglers for a while because it will be a challenge finding bait and places to launch,” said Robinson. “I think it will result in a shift in fishing pressure. We’ll probably see a shift in fishing pressure to Matagorda Bay and some of the other bays, so we’ll be watching for that.”