Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 31, Issue 4, pp 802–813 | Cite as

Fifty-Five Years of Fish Kills in Coastal Texas



The designation of Texas as a “hotspot” for fish mortalities relative to the other 22 coastal US states is of serious concern for scientists, resource managers, and the public alike. We investigated the major sources and causes of fish kills in coastal Texas from 1951 to 2006. During this 55-year period, more than 383 million fish were killed, 72% of which were Gulf menhaden (Brevoortia spp.). We examined the relationships between climate and the physical features of Texas bays and estuaries as well as the consequences of high-density industrialization and urbanization along several coastal centers on fish kills, including the impact of eutrophication, algal blooms (toxic and nontoxic), and hypoxia. Galveston and Matagorda Bays had the highest number of fish kill events and total number of fish killed. The largest number of fish kill events and the highest number of fish killed occurred during the warmest months, particularly in August. The leading cause of fish kills was found to be low dissolved oxygen concentrations caused by both physical and biological factors. From 1958 to 1997, about two thirds of the mortalities from low oxygen concentrations were caused by human activities. With the population predicted to double in Texas by 2050, mostly along the coastal areas, natural resources will require additional protection. Further increases in nutrient loading are expected in areas unable to keep up with construction of sewage treatment facilities. Defining the sources and causes of fish kill events in Texas will allow better management and conservation efforts.


Fish kills Hypoxia Eutrophication Gulf menhaden Brevoortia patronus Texas 



dissolved oxygen


dissolved concentration potential of pollutant


Environmental Protection Agency


Kills and Spills Team


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


Pollution Response Inventory and Species Mortality


Texas Commission on Environmental Quality


Texas Parks and Wildlife Department


  1. Benson, W.H., and J.K. Summers. 2002. The ecological condition of estuaries: A focus on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico Coasts of the United States. In Proceedings of the sixth international symposium, fish physiology, toxicology, and water quality, ed. R.V. Thurston, 297–310. Athens, Georgia: Ecosystems Research Division.Google Scholar
  2. Biernacki, E. 1979. Fish kills caused by pollution. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency, 0-277-208.Google Scholar
  3. Boesch, D.F., R.B. Brinsfield, and R.E. Magnienc. 2001. Chesapeake bay eutrophication: Scientific understanding, ecosystem restoration, and challenges for agriculture. Journal of Environmental Quality 30: 303–320.Google Scholar
  4. Breitburg, D. 2002. Effects of hypoxia, and the balance between hypoxia and enrichment, on coastal fishes and fisheries. Estuaries 25: 767–781.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Burkholder, J.M., H.B. Glasgow, and N. Deamer-Melia. 2001. Overview and present status of the toxic Pfiesteria complex (Dinophyceae). Phycologia 40: 186–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Buskey, E.J., H. Liu, C. Collumb, and J.G.F. Bersano. 2001. The decline and recovery of a persistent Texas brown tide algal bloom in the Laguna Madre (Texas, USA). Estuaries 24: 337–346. doi:10.2307/1353236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Clement, C., S.B. Bricker, D.E. Pirhalla. 2001. Eutrophic conditions in estuarine waters. I. Silver Spring, MD: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.Google Scholar
  8. Contreras, C. 2003. Thirty years of investigating fish and wildlife kills and pollution in Texas. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, WRTS-2003-001. Austin, TX.Google Scholar
  9. Denton, W., and C. Contreras. 2004. The red tide (Karenia brevis) bloom of 2000. Austin, TX: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.Google Scholar
  10. Diaz, R.J. 2002. Hypoxia and anoxia as global phenomena. In Proceedings of the sixth international symposium, fish physiology, toxicology, and water quality, ed. R.V. Thurston, 183–202. Athens, Georgia: Ecosystems Research Division.Google Scholar
  11. Engle, V.D., J.C. Kurtz, L.M. Smith, C. Chancy, and P. Bourgeois. 2007. A classification of U.S. estuaries based on physical and hydrologic attributes. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 129: 397–412. doi:10.1007/s10661-006-9372-9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. EPA. 1999. What you should know about fish lesions. Washington, DC: United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water.Google Scholar
  13. Fournie, J.W., J.K. Summers, and S.B. Weisberg. 1996. Prevalence of gross pathological abnormalities in estuarine fishes. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 125: 581–590. doi:10.1577/1548-8659(1996)125<0581:POGPAI>2.3.CO;2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Franco, J., E. Aspillaga, I. Muxika, V. Pérez, O. Solaun, and Á. Borja. 2002. Hypoxia and anoxia in small temperate estuaries: patterns of oxygen deficiency, effects, and recovery. In Proceedings of the sixth international symposium, fish physiology, toxicology, and water quality, ed. R.V. Thurston, 79–94. Athens, Georgia: Ecosystems Research Division.Google Scholar
  15. Franklin, H.B. 2007. The most important fish in the sea. Washington, DC: Island Press.Google Scholar
  16. GBEP. 2001. The comprehensive and management plan for the Galveston Bay Ecosystem. Last accessed 28 Nov 2007.
  17. Granéli, E., and J.T. Turner. 2006. An introduction to harmful algae. In Ecology of harmful algae, eds. E. Granéli, and J.T. TurnerBerlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  18. Gunter, G. 1942. Offatts Bayou, a locality with recurrent summer mortality of marine organisms. American Midland Naturalist 28: 631–633. doi:10.2307/2420894.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. KAST. 2006. Kills and Spills Team standard operating procedures manual. In TPWD (ed.).Google Scholar
  20. Lester, J., and L. Gonzalez. 2002. The state of the bay: A characterization of the Galveston Bay ecosystem. The Galveston Bay Estuary Program.Google Scholar
  21. Lowe, J.A., D.R.G. Farrow, A.S. Pait, S.J. Arenstam, and E.F. Lavan. 1991. Fish kills in coastal waters: 1980–1989. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.Google Scholar
  22. Martin, C.M., and P.A. Montagna. 1995. Environmental assessment of LaQuinta Channel, Corpus Christi Bay, Texas. Texas Journal of Science 47: 203–222.Google Scholar
  23. Mee, L. 1992. The black sea in crisis: a need for concerted international action. Ambio 21: 278–286.Google Scholar
  24. Mee, L. 2006. Reviving dead zones. Scientific American 295: 78–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Montagna, P.A., and R.D. Kalke. 1992. The effect of freshwater inflow on meiofaunal and macrofanal populations in the Guadalupe and Nueces Estuaries, Texas. Estuaries 15: 307–326. doi:10.2307/1352779.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Morris, J.G., L.M. Grattan, L.A. Wilson, W.A. Meyer, R. McCarter, H.A. Bowers, J.R. Hebei, D.L. Matuszak, and D.W. Oldach. 2006. Occupational exposure to Pfiesteria species in estuarine waters is not a risk factor for illness. Environmental Health Perspectives 114: 1038–1043.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Moulton, D.W., L.D. McKinney, and D.L. Buzan. 2004. Texas coastal ecosystems: past, present and future. In TPWD.Google Scholar
  28. NRC. 2000. Clean coastal waters: Understanding and reducing the effects of nutrient pollution. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.Google Scholar
  29. PHA. 2006. The Port of Houston Authority. Houston, TX. Last accessed 12 Nov 2007.
  30. Pinckney, J.L. 2006. System-scale nutrient fluctuations in Galveston Bay, Texas (USA). In Functioning of microphytobenthos in estuaries, eds. J.C. Kromkamp, Jody F.C. de Brouwer, G.F. Blanchard, R.M. Forster, and V. Créach, 141–164. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.Google Scholar
  31. Pollution Response Inventory and Species Mortality Database. Unpublished data 1951–2006. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.Google Scholar
  32. Poon, W.L., C.Y. Hung, and D.J. Randall. 2002. The effect of aquatic hypoxia on fish. In Proceedings of the sixth international symposium, fish physiology, toxicology, and water quality, ed. R. V. Thurston, 31–50. Athens, Georgia: Ecosystems Research Division.Google Scholar
  33. Pörtner, H.O., and R. Knust. 2007. Climate change affects marine fishes through the oxygen limitation of thermal tolerance. Science 315: 95–97. doi:10.1126/science.1135471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Quigg, A., S.E. Davis, and D.F. Roelke. 2007. Changes in freshwater inflows and how they effect texas bays. Final Report of the Coastal Coordination Council pursuant to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Award No. NA05NOS4191964.Google Scholar
  35. Rabalais, N.N. 1998. Oxygen depletion in coastal waters. Silver Spring, MD: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.Google Scholar
  36. Roehrborn, L. 2006. Seasonal analysis of abiotic factors impacting phytoplankton assemblages in Offatts Bayou, Galveston, Texas, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX. 273 pp.Google Scholar
  37. Ritter, M.C., and P.A. Montagna. 2001. Cause and effects of hypoxia (low oxygen) in Corpus Christi Bay, Texas. Coastal Management Program, TR/01/001. Austin, Texas.Google Scholar
  38. Roelke, D.L., R.M. Errera, R. Kiesling, B.W. Brooks, J.P. Grover, L. Schwierzke, F. Ureña-Boeck, J. Baker, and J.L. Pinckney. 2007. Effects of nutrient enrichment on Prymnesium parvum population dynamics and toxicity: results from field experiments, Lake Possum Kingdom, USA. Aquatic Microbial Ecology 46: 125–140. doi:10.3354/ame046125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Skinner, A.C. 2007. Belly-up in the Bayou, who's the culprit? Physical, chemical, and biological parameters of Offatts Bayou, Galveston, Texas, Texas A&M University at Galveston, Galveston, TX. 64 pp.Google Scholar
  40. Sklar, F.H., and J.A. Browder. 1998. Coastal environmental impacts brought about by alterations to freshwater flow in the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental Management 22: 547–562. doi:10.1007/s002679900127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Thurston, R.V. 2002. Fish physiology, toxicology, and water quality proceedings of the sixth international symposium. La Paz, B.C.S. Mexico: Ecosystems Research Division.Google Scholar
  42. Tuvikene, L., P. Nõges, and T. Nõges. 2002. Hypoxia/anoxia in Lake Vortsjarv, Estonia. In Proceedings of the sixth international symposium, fish physiology, toxicology, and water quality, ed. R.V. Thurston, 147–162. Athens Georgia: Ecosystems Research Division Athens.Google Scholar
  43. TWDB. 2007. Highlights of the 2007 State Water Plan. Texas Water Development Board.Google Scholar
  44. TPWD. 1998. Frances’ Rains Leave Deadly Legacy: Fish Kills. Austin, TX. Last accessed 7 May 2007.
  45. UNEP. 1991. The state of the world environment. Nairobi.Google Scholar
  46. Vaughan, S.L., C.N.K. Mooers, and S.M. Gay. 2001. Physical variability in Prince William sound during the SEA study (1994–98). Fisheries Oceanography 10: 58–80. doi:10.1046/j.1054-6006.2001.00034.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Vaughan, D.S., K.W. Shertzer, and J.W. Smith. 2007. Gulf menhaden (Brevoortia patronus) in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico: fishery characteristics and biological reference points for management. Fisheries Research 83: 263–275. doi:10.1016/j.fishres.2006.10.002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Wannamaker, C.M., and J.A. Rice. 2000. Effects of hypoxia on movements and behavior of selected estuarine organisms from the southeastern United States. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 249: 145–163. doi:10.1016/S0022-0981(00)00160-X.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Wu, R.S.S. 2002. Hypoxia: From molecular responses to ecosystem responses. Marine Pollution Bulletin 45: 35–45. doi:10.1016/S0025-326X(02)00061-9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA
  2. 2.Departments of Marine Biology and OceanographyTexas A&M University at GalvestonGalvestonUSA

Personalised recommendations