The record-breaking freeze that hit eastern North Carolina the first week of January was so cold that it killed a massive number of fish in tidal creeks and estuaries along the coast.
Hardest hit was the spotted seatrout, a fish especially popular with recreational anglers who, along with commercial fishermen, are now banned from fishing for them until the middle of June. The moratorium is meant to give surviving fish a chance to replenish by spawning this spring.
Recreational fishing accounts for about three-fourths of the nearly one million pounds of spotted seatrout caught each year in North Carolina, according to the state Division of Marine Fisheries. It supports an industry that includes seatrout-specific bait and tackle, as well as chartered boats, and in 2016 had a $54 million economic impact in the state, according to the fisheries division.
“On top of our depleted resources and stocks, to have this megakill – the good lord did not do us any favors,” said Charlie Schoonmaker, a recreational charter boat captain.
There are no firm estimates of how many fish overall died as a result of what is called cold stun, but the seatrout more than other fish are vulnerable because they are found in deep water holes and sloughs where the water is usually warmer.
Cold stun occurs when water temperatures suddenly plunge or stay cold long enough to make the fish appear lethargic, even floating belly-up and easy to retrieve by hand. Those that stay alive long enough for the waters to warm up might survive.
Many of them sink to the bottom after they die and cannot be found to be counted.
Schoonmaker estimates the number of fish killed in the millions; others estimate hundreds or thousands.
“It was a massive stun that went on to be a catastrophic fish kill,” Schoonmaker said.
Schoonmaker is based in Carolina Beach but was interviewed on Saturday from the Bahamas, where he said he is working temporarily as a result of the fish kill in North Carolina.
Not everyone agrees on how many fish were killed, nor even if the stock is depleted. The extent to which certain fish should be protected is the subject of a pitched battle that has been going on for many years between commercial and recreational fishermen.
But in this instance both sides generally concede that the seatrout need time to replenish during peak spawning season in May.
For a number of years the state has had criteria in place that determines when a ban must be imposed. This was the first cold-stun where the Marine Fisheries director used new internal guidelines to determine when to halt fishing.
The guidelines trigger state action if the water temperature drops to 41 degrees for eight consecutive days, or 37.4 degrees over a 24-hour period. During the first week of January, biologists measured temperatures that ranged from 32.09 to 37.4 degrees Fahrenheit. There were some areas that stayed below freezing the entire week.
Louis Daniel, until two years ago longtime executive director of the Division of Marine Fisheries and now a consultant to the N.C. Wildlife Federation, a conservation group, said most anglers understand that it’s best to take precautionary measures even if the full extent of the damage isn’t known.
“There have been years where recreational and commercial fishermen have been very upset that it (the season) didn’t close when there was a stun event, but it didn’t meet the criteria,” Daniels said.
“If it’s a poor spring, people will understand,” he added. “But if it’s good and they can’t keep them (the seatrout) then certainly you’ll hear about it. There are 450,000 licensed recreational plus another million not licensed by the division. That’s a lot of people to have a lot of different opinions.”
Steve Schill, legislative director for the N.C. Fisheries Association, which advocates for the commercial fishing trade, said the most common complaint he has heard is about the waste of perfectly good fish.
“You see dead fish in very cold water that are perfectly safe to eat, but you can’t even take them home,” Schill said. “You’ve just got to watch them sink.”
North Carolina’s climate is temperate enough to limit significant cold-stun events to every five to seven years, says Steve Poland, a biologist with the state.
“This year was a very significant event,” he said. “We hadn’t had one this bad since about 2010.”
Confirmed and second-hand reports indicate the phenomenon stretched from the Currituck Sound to Shallotte in eight water bodies, at least, and affected neighboring coastal states.
Poland, who helped develop the new internal guidelines, said state fisheries Director Stephen Murphey acted quickly to close down the seatrout fishing by issuing an order calling for a ban a day after the first confirmed report in January. The ban took effect within 48 hours, which is the time frame specified by state law.
The season for spotted seatrout is normally year-round.
Previous guidelines were more subjective, Poland said. The new ones are meant to be more quantitative by measuring temperature, duration and the presence of cold-stunned fish.
“Whether we like them or not, once the criteria are met the director has no option but to close the fishery,” Schill said.
Additional information on cold stun events can be found online.