Cold Snap Freezes Fruit, Tropical Fish

Freeze hits Florida fruit
TAMPA (1-11-10) -

Temperatures plunged to as low as 19 degrees in Brooksville, and the mid-20's in the citrus growing areas of Polk County. And we're not done with the cold yet. Citrus is likely to be affected, and Florida's tropical fish industry is taking a big hit.

It's the longest cold snap to hit Florida in more than 20 years, with sub-freezing temperatures reaching deep into the state's citrus belt. Growers won't know the extent of damage to their trees for several days, says Andrew Meadows of the industry group Florida Citrus Mutual.

"We've had growers who have told us some of their groves got down to the upper teens," he said, "and they're cutting sold ice through their fruit right now."

Growers won't know the extent of damage to their trees for several days, but fruit in more northerly counties is likely to be affected.

"Right now, all we can say is we do have some damage," says Meadows. "There is some frozen fruit out there - which by the way doesn't preclude the fruit from being processed. If you have minor damage, you can still send your fruit to the processing plant, so it's not all is lost."

Meadows says he has heard reports from some grove owners in colder, low-lying areas that they were cutting solid ice through their fruit. Trees can be damaged if they're exposed to temperatures of 28 degrees or less for more than four hours,

"So it's a mixed bag," he says. "It depends on where your grove is located, and whether you came through it OK or not."

Things aren't OK for most of the state's tropical fish farmers. Florida supplies 95 percent of the nations supply of domestic pet fish. While some hatchlings are protected indoors, the majority are raised outdoors - where they become vulnerable once the water drops below 55 degrees.

"The water's really cold, we've done everything we could do to save the fish, but this is the longest duration of cold that I can ever remember in the state," says s Ron Connor, who owns Connor Farms Tropical Fish in Plant City.

He doesn't expect many of his seven-to-eight million fish in outdoor ponds to survive. Connor says fish tend to fall to the bottom when the water gets cold, so it's hard to tell how many fish have been affected.

"We had some 21-degree nights, we had some 26, some 22's, it never warmed up," he said. "The water never had an opportunity to warm up, it just stayed cold. And when the sun would shine a little bit, the wind chill was so great that it would offset the sun shining."

Connor has been in the tropical fish business for more than thirty years. He said it got colder the last time it snowed in these parts - but it wasn't this cold for this long.

"When it snowed in '77, I was in it, and that Christmas freeze of '89, I was in it, I've had some losses even last year the two cold snaps, and some the year before. But nothing like this," says Connor. "Before, you thought things may survive, but this one - there's no letup."

David Boozer, executive director of the Florida Tropical Fish Farm Association, says farmers will have to restock with hatchings that are being grown indoors.

"There will be some hearty varieties that may make it through," says Boozer, "but by and large you're going to see some mortality in the outside fish ponds, even those that have been covered with a greenhouse film to help retain the heat under it; they're going to have some losses."

But it's not all bad news for the state's farmers. Strawberry growers are expected to escape the worst damage.

"The plants continue to amaze us with their durability," says Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. "We knew strawberry plants were pretty resilient. At this point, the amount of freezing and thawing and watering and drying that they've gone through in the last week-plus, with remarkable little damage to the plants."

He says the only damage expected is where irrigation equipment failed or the winds blew too hard to allow for a protective coat of ice on the fruit. Growers, he says, are just looking forward to the end of the freeze so new blooms can get a chance to sprout.

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