Cold Temperatures Devastate Florida Marine Life

Published February 20, 2010

The devastating cold fronts and snowstorms that mercilessly pounded residents of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast this winter have devastated marine ecosystems and endangered species in Florida that depend on warm weather.

Record-Shattering Manatee Deaths
After a blast of Arctic air made its way to the Sunshine State in mid-January, hundreds of thousands of dead fish floated to the surface of waters along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  Among the fish unable to withstand the cooler waters were grouper, bonefish, bream, barracuda, red snapper, snook, parrotfish, pompano, tarpon, mullet, catfish, kingfish, largemouth bass, and carp.

In addition, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reports a record number of endangered manatees have died from cold weather this year. So far, cold weather has killed 280 Florida manatees in 2010.

This shatters the previous record of 56, set in 2009. State wildlife officials also reported a large number of sea turtles and eels lying dead on the ocean floor.

Coral Reefs Devastated
Shallow-water corals in the Florida Keys were devastated by the cold weather, as well.

Meaghan Johnson, a marine biologist with the Nature Conservancy told the Los Angeles Times (January 31) star and brain corals, large species that can take hundreds of years to grow, were as white and lifeless as bones. “Corals didn’t even have a chance to bleach.  They just went straight to dead,” she said. “It’s really ecosystem-wide mortality.”

Florida state wildlife officials agree this year’s killing of corals is far worse than the previously most severe case of cold-bleaching of corals, which occurred in 1977.

Intervention Saved Animals
The cold-weather death toll would have been much worse if not for the intervention of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“More than 4,500 sea turtles were rescued from the cold water in January,” FWC reported in a press statement.

“Since the beginning of the year, biologists have rescued more than a dozen manatees statewide and transported them to rehabilitation facilities as needed,” FWC added.

No Deep-Water Refuge
“Other severe kills occurred in 2003—not as severe—and in the 1980s, particularly 1983 and 1989,” said William Balgord, Ph. D., president of Environmental Technologies, Inc. consultants. “The real problem is that a number of tropical species inhabit the waters off the southern half of the state and usually get through the months of January and February by retreating into deeper water, which is more thermally stable. But this year even the deep water—more than six feet—cooled to levels that tropical species cannot tolerate.”

Obama Claims Warming Threat
Ironically, the terrible toll this year’s cold weather has inflicted on Florida’s marine life has not kept the Obama administration from citing global warming as a reason for considering seeking protection for corals under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) asserted on February 10 it had found “substantial scientific or commercial information” that corals found near Florida, Hawaii, and U.S. territories could be wiped out by mid-century if not brought under government protection from warming waters, what it describes as rising ocean acidity, and pollution.

The NMFS will solicit public comments until April 10, 2010 and will announce a decision next year on whether the corals will be listed under the ESA.

Warming Fears Misplaced
Balgord takes issue with the CBD’s claim that anthropogenic greenhouse gases contribute to acidification of oceans, calling such a view “misplaced.” 

“Ocean pH is above 7 [neutrality], often approaching 8 [a highly alkali level, not acidic] in very warm waters,” said Balgord. “Fresh water, because of its lack of buffering capacity, is susceptible to acidification. Oceans, on the other hand, have buffering capacity in abundance because of dissolved alkaline earth ions, such as calcium and strontium.

“I think their argument is the result of sloppy thinking, [and] a lack of a basic understanding of aqueous chemistry, that goes back to the days of the ‘acid rain’ scares,” Balgord added.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.