AUSTIN, Texas — Wildlife and fisheries biologists with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department say the full impacts on natural resources from Hurricane Rita may not be realized for some time, but assessments in East Texas and along the upper coast in recent weeks indicate substantial damage to some ecosystems.
“The implication of that extensive an inundation of saltwater into freshwater wetlands will depend upon the resiliency those marshes,” said Larry McKinney, Ph.D., TPWD coastal fisheries director. “If we see any significant losses then we will have to deal with that, including erosion issues and perhaps an expanded low oxygen ‘dead zone’ out in the Gulf of Mexico that could eventually reach the Texas coast.”
Nearly all of the major rivers and their tributaries in Southeast Texas experienced substantial fish kills as a result of Hurricane Rita. These include most streams east of the Trinity River and several tributaries to the Trinity River. TPWD regional director for inland fisheries Dave Terre in Tyler said he does not believe the storm crippled fish populations.
The old Jasper State Fish Hatchery sustained damage to some of the infrastructure, but the facility itself is still intact and functioning. “We don’t think we lost anything in the way of fish,” reported Dr. Gary Saul, hatcheries chief with TPWD’s Inland Fisheries Division. “We have a big mess to clean up, but that’s it so we were lucky. It shouldn’t impact us as far as production. We have catfish coming out of there the end of the month for some of our community fishing areas and they should be trucked out as planned.”
Winds topping 100 mph wreaked havoc on Pineywoods forests, felling numerous precious mature hardwood trees. “We do not know the extent yet of tree damage to forested interior areas on our WMAs and public hunting units and the U.S. Forest Service Lands or the Big Thicket National Preserve,” said Nathan Garner, TPWD regional director for wildlife in Tyler.
Wildlife biologist Bobby Eichler noted that deer have had easy access to acorns this fall as a result, but that staple food source for whitetails and squirrels will be reduced for many years to come.
The debris is also causing problems for hunters preparing for the upcoming deer season. Instead of making last-minute preparations to camps, stands and feeders, many hunters have to start from scratch. As hunters begin piecing back together deer camps, the U.S. Forest Service is urging caution against wildfire due to a lack of rain during the storm combined with the additional fuel source from debris.
Waterfowl biologists are concerned that storm damage to marshlands in Louisiana and Texas could pose problems for wintering ducks and geese that rely on those food sources. “There’s still a seed source out there, but a lot of the submerged stuff is unavailable,” said Dave Morrison, TPWD waterfowl program leader. “Mottled ducks are a big concern. Did they get out of there or did they stay and get hammered? We just don’t know yet.”
Reports from primary waterfowl wintering areas like the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and the J.D. Murphree WMA indicate the presence of “black water” in parts of the marshes where submerged vegetation and invertebrates were wiped out, while other parts are showing some positive initial results. “Some of the marsh had millet washed in from the rain, which should attract and hold some ducks,” offered Len Polasek, TPWD regional director for wildlife along the upper coast. “We’ve found some damage and erosion on some of the levees at the Murphree area from the storm surge and around the water control structures at Salt Bayou on the Intracoastal.”
Polasek said public waterfowl hunting will take part as scheduled on area WMAs, but due to irreparable damage to the check station at Salt Bayou, hunts for that unit and the Big Hill Unit will be conducted from the Murphree area.
Scientists say hurricanes, droughts and other environmental extremes are a natural part of the processes that have shaped Gulf estuaries, ecologically important areas where freshwater from rivers enters saltwater bays. Estuarine ecosystems historically have normally rebounded fairly quickly from such events. Scientists say what complicates the picture now are human influences.
“In the last hundred years, we have lost about half of our Texas coastal wetlands, diverted freshwater inflows into bays and diminished water quality in coastal waters to the point that hurricane recovery may be prolonged in some areas,” McKinney said.
“Our estuaries are remarkably resilient and productive so they will come back but there are limits and Rita and Katrina remind us of those limits on both an ecological and human scale.”