Shrimp, sea turtles, “sport fish,” teal & doves all get a break
HOUSTON, Texas––As hard as Hurricane Harvey hit humans, pets, livestock, and some of the most vulnerable wildlife along the Gulf Coast of Texas and adjacent part of Louisiana, especially big birds who could not escape from the wind, early damage assessments indicate that the net effect of Harvey on wildlife will be mostly beneficial.
This will be mostly due to steeply reduced hunting and fishing pressure on keystone species.
Turtle stops traffic
The immediate Hurricane Harvey impacts on wildlife were , as expected, mostly disruptive and harmful to those animals who were swept out of their habitat by high winds, flooding, and tidal surge.
The Houston SPCA, for instance, rescued a 90-pound alligator snapping turtle from Memorial Drive, one of the city’s major thoroughfares. Believed to be from 70 to 100 years old, the alligator snapping turtle was released into Buffalo Bayou, the waterway extending into Houston from the Gulf Coast.
Alligators up to 10 and even 12 feet long were removed by Texas Parks & Wildlife wardens from homes and yards in Houston suburbs including Lake Houston and Missouri City.
Almost every sort of urban and suburban wildlife fled into dangerous proximity to humans, occasioning frequent warnings from Texas Parks & Wildlife to disaster relief workers and people fleeing or returning to their homes through standing water about chance encounters with anything and everything from displaced skunks, squirrels, and raccoons to water moccasins.
“A couple of hundred bats”
“We got a couple of hundred bats from areas surrounding Houston that were affected, plus local rescues,” Bat World Sanctuary vice president Dottie Hyatt told ANIMALS 24-7 from the Bat World Sanctuary headquarters in Weatherford, Texas.
“We are fortunate that we have a wild sanctuary building where we can release the bats and let them self-release,” Hyatt said, “while we watch them to make certain their flight is good. The building is on a bluff so the bats can easily drop into flight.”
Steve Devillier, a farmer in Chambers County, near Winnie, “about 30 minutes southwest of Beaumont and 20 minutes from the coast,” according to Christopher Collins of the Texas Observer, told Collins that “more than 200 whitetail deer drowned on his nearby hunting lease.”
But, though Devillier nor Collins were clear about the circumstances, those may have been deer whose ability to escape and hide from Hurricane Harvey was inhibited by high fences or other obstacles meant to keep them on the hunting lease.
Reduced hunting & fishing pressure
Species who are either commercially or recreationally fished or hunted will generally benefit during the fall of 2017 from reduced fishing and hunting pressure, along with whatever other species prey upon those species.
Perhaps most significantly, 25% of the Texas shrimping fleet was lost to Hurricane Harvey, Texas Department of Agriculture commissioner Sid Miller told Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle. The only visible negative effect on wildlife from that loss appears to be from the relatively small amount of fuel oil leaking out of some of the sunken vessels, including at least two of nine shrimp trawlers that sank in the harbor at Aransas Pass.
“That has prompted the Aransas Pass harbor master to close the boat launch at Redfish Bay Boat House until the vessels can be salvaged and the oil spill cleaned up,” Associated Press reported on September 19, 2017.
Closing the boat launch reduces the pressure on other marine life in the vicinity, at least for a time.
Shrimp netting vs. sea turtles
The impact of the losses to the shrimping fleet will be felt for much longer, not least because shrimpers account for 85% of the poundage of marine life landed along the Texas Gulf Coast.
That 25% of the Texas shrimp fleet is out of commission roughly translates into 25% fewer sea turtles caught in shrimp nets off the Texas coast, until the fleet recovers.
Altogether, about 53,000 sea turtles per year are killed by shrimp netting in U.S. waters, the environmental advocacy organization Oceana estimates. This is about ten times the number projected by the National Marine Fisheries Service from carcasses actually found.
Regardless of whether the Oceana number or the National Marine Fisheries Service number is most accurate, the toll from shrimping on endangered and threatened turtle species is considerable.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles
Accidental netting by shrimpers is believed to be the leading cause of death of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, whose major U.S. nesting habitat is Padre Island National Seashore, spanning most of the Coastal Bend region, from Rockport to Corpus Christi.
Donna Shaver, chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at Padre Island National Seashore, told Men’s Journal writer Melissa Gaskill that adult sea turtles apparently do not bother to leave the area during hurricanes, apparently because they are relatively safe underwater, so long as they avoid being washed ashore. But because Kemp’s ridley sea turtles nest in spring and early summer, the 2017 nesting season had ended before Hurricane Harvey blew in.
The “Big Three” of Texas Gulf fish
Less shrimping also means more abundant food for sea turtles, sea birds, and many fish species, including southern flounder, spotted sea trout and red drum. All are voracious shrimp-eaters, and together are considered to be the “Big Three” of Texas Gulf recreational fishing, pursued by more than 350 charter captains.
More shrimp are scarcely the only break that southern flounder, spotted sea trout and red drum, among other fish and birds, are getting from the passage of Hurricane Harvey.
“Charter cancellations began before the storm and have continued in Harvey’s aftermath,” wrote Corpus Christi Caller-Times reporter David Sikes.
‘Guides speculate this could continue throughout September or longer, depending on the availability of lodging and the recovery rate of Houston and other hard-hit areas.”
“No one thinking hunting or fishing”
“No one in the Houston market is thinking hunting or fishing in the immediate future due to obvious circumstances,” Port O’Connor fishing and hunting guide Will Grandberry told Sikes. “As normalcy returns to their residences, recreational users will return. How long will that be? If I had to guess, I’d say one to two months, once electricity is returned and house repairs are completed.”
Observed Sikes “A considerable number of guides add waterfowl hunting to their repertoire during duck season,” including the season for teal, a small dabbler hunted about six weeks before the season opens for other ducks.
“Most Coastal Bend waterfowl outfitters operate from San Antonio Bay to Redfish Bay,” wrote Sikes, “so they live in Rockport, Aransas Pass, Ingleside and Port Aransas,” four of the cities––other than Houston––that experienced the most damage and disruption from Hurricane Harvey.
National Wildlife Refuges close to hunters
Among other effects of Hurricane Harvey were extensive losses or damage to duck blinds, docks, and other facilities used by duck hunters.
Offered Dallas Morning News writer Ray Sasser, “Teal hunters were expecting a good season, but 50% of teal hunting occurs along the upper coast, the area most impacted by torrential rains.”
Elaborated Houston Chronicle writer Shannon Tompkins, “Blue-winged teal arriving on Texas’ coast are finding marshes and prairies awash with wetlands, a result of record-setting rains and flooding from Hurricane Harvey. But that flooding has forced many public hunting areas to close,” including the Big Boggy, San Bernard, Brazoria, Anahauc, McFaddin and Texas Point National Wildlife Refuges.
Bird hunter count down by half
“In a typical Texas teal season, perhaps as many as 40,000 hunters participate,” Tompkins wrote. “This season, look for half of that, at best.”
Tompkins observed that “State and federal rules require anyone hunting migratory game birds – doves, waterfowl, snipe, woodcock, etc. – to have Harvest Information Program certification on their hunting license. By the middle of the first week of September 2016, 400,900 hunters had been ‘certified’ in Texas. This year, that number was just 257,000.”
Tompkins noted that the closed public hunting areas “are almost all coastal marsh, where flooding continues to be an issue. While Harvey’s storm surge did not put a substantial vegetation-killing surge of high-salinity salt water into the marshes, it did swamp the marshes with several feet of fresh water. That deep water puts aquatic vegetation out of reach of teal, making the marshes less attractive to the little ducks.
“That high water also poses a potential longer term problem for the marshes if it triggers outbreaks of ‘black water,’” Tompkins said, “a condition in which deteriorating vegetation beneath floodwaters triggers chemical and biological processes that rob the water of dissolved oxygen. The result is a die-off of all plant and aquatic life in affected areas.
“Things look better on the coastal prairies,” Tompkins finished, “where Harvey’s rains created lots of shallow temporary wetlands and put water in cut rice fields, habitat often favored by teal.”
Dove hunting down too
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department dove program leader Shaun Oldenburger acknowledged to Sasser of the Dallas Morning News that Hurricane Harvey had depressed hunting participation during an expanded dove season, which opened on September 1, 2017, just as Hurricane Harvey drifted out of the region after dumping more than 15 trillion gallons of water over Texas.
“There is no doubt that winds caused significant damage to sunflowers and milo,” Oldenburger said, referring to crops commonly planted to attract birds to shooting areas. “Flooding makes foraging difficult at best on croton, ragweed, pigweed and other native seeds,” meaning that doves have little incentive to remain in those vicinities.
“We had three frigate birds (large oceanic birds) on our pond this weekend,” Oldenburger added. “That’s 105 miles inland. It gives you some idea of bird movements that occurred before and during the storm.”