Charlotte Harbor fishing charters explain how Florida’s most common natural disaster affects popular gamefish nearshore

For us Charlotte Harbor locals, August 2004 and Hurricane Charley will forever be etched into our memories. This particularly strong Category 4 hurricane packing 150 mph winds hit us pretty much spot on. Forecasters were expecting the hurricane to hit farther north around Tampa, but at the last moment, it veered northwest and hit Captiva Island and communities around Charlotte Harbor.

Charlotte Harbor fishing - hurricane landfall
Image courtesy of NOAA

For fishing charters and other community residents, the storm left a lasting mark in our respect for the power of Mother Nature.

The storm and others during that infamous hurricane season made national and even international headlines. Scenes of destruction were seen by millions on TV, but what most of the networks were not talking about was the storm’s impact on popular gamefish.

Far offshore, a hurricane doesn’t really affect fish down below since they can swim deeper to escape the turbulence at the surface

Once a storm reaches Charlotte Harbor though, its impacts start to become more noticeable to fish and other aquatic life.

First, much higher tides caused by storm surge combine with the wind driven water to push fish into areas they are not meant to be. If a particular species requires a certain salinity level, they could die if they are pushed into an area with too much or too little salinity.

Also, rising waters can flood areas that are usually high and dry. When fish are pushed into these areas but later cutoff from the harbor as floodwaters recede, the small ponds eventually dry up and sadly the fish in them do not make it.

While salinity changes and stranded fish are a common culprit, low dissolved oxygen is the most common reason many fish are killed following a hurricane

Just like humans, fish need oxygen to survive – they just take it in differently. When oxygen levels in the water are too low and the fish do not have enough for metabolism, they can certainly be in big trouble.

Many factors related to a hurricane all contribute to there being a lack of oxygen in the water, with the primary one being wind.

When hurricane winds are pushing over an estuary or even a lake, it’s pushing water around with it. This turbulence in the water below stirs up sediment on the bottom that is low in oxygen. Bacteria within this sediment are also brought to the water’s surface and consume the organic material, which in turn consumes more oxygen in the water.  Hydrogen sulfide in this organic matter also gets stirred up during high winds. Not only can Hydrogen sulfide be lethal to fish, it’s the reason you may smell a rotten egg or sewage odor.

This entire process is known as “turnover” to experts since the bottom is literally being turned over onto the top.

High winds from a hurricane also blow excessive amounts of leaves and other organic debris into the water. These materials consume oxygen in the water as they dissolve, which of course leaves even less oxygen available for the fish.

Another reason for low levels of oxygen in the water is the periods of no sunlight that accompany a hurricane. Sunlight is a critical part of ensuring oxygen in the water. Microscopic organisms and plants use the sun’s energy to create carbon-based food in a process called photosynthesis. Oxygen is a critical by-product of this process.

If several days go by with no sunlight and the organisms are not able to produce as much oxygen, any fish will be at risk.

Despite these negative impacts, hurricanes also provide some benefit estuary environments like Charlotte Harbor

There’s no denying that hurricanes are destructive, but there is a silver lining. Any rain helps replenish water supplies in surrounding wetlands and aquifers.  It also helps flush debris like weeds and other waste out to sea. As those sediments from the bay begin settling back down, they usually replenish nutrient supplies in surrounding marsh areas.

Also, fish are quite resilient and may settle into different areas following a storm. In the grand scheme of things, the impact of a hurricane on fish isn’t as devastating as it may seem from footage you catch in news reports. Like the surrounding community, things do get back to normal for fishing charters, residents, and yes, the fish.

Capt. Leighton Ingram of Krewe Chief Charters has been fishing the waters around Charlotte Harbor for decades and has seen many storms come and go in his time. We invite you to visit to learn more or to schedule an expedition today. Please remember that trips are re-scheduled in the event a hurricane.

Charlotte Harbor fishing - hurricane damage
Image courtesy of FEMA

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