LAKELAND, Florida — Frosted oranges, strawberries encased in ice: The images of Florida’s freezes are familiar, sad and earthy. But just past the crop rows here in the state’s agricultural core, there swims another sizable industry that has suffered more than any other because of this year’s unusually long cold snap — tropical fish.
The little guys are dying by the millions.
A severe guppy shortage has already emerged, according to distributors, while fish farmers statewide expect losses of more than 50 percent as African cichlids, marble mollies, danios and other cheerful-looking varieties sink like pebbles to the bottom of freshwater ponds across Florida.
“It could be devastating,” said Ray Quillen, the owner of Urban Tropical, holding a few angelfish he hoped to save by moving them to indoor tanks. “Not just for me, but for everyone.”
The freezing temperatures have come at the worst possible time. Florida provides about half of the tropical fish sold nationwide (Asia provides most of the rest), and like oranges, the colorful pets sell best in winter.
The fish farmers who serve the $45-million-a-year industry here were already suffering because of the recession and a slow shift away from live hobbies and toward electronics. But the freeze has tipped them from glum to depressed.
“It’s bad,” said David Boozer, executive director of the 120-member Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association. “We were hoping for an economic turnaround to pull us up by our bootstraps, and that may happen, but we certainly didn’t need 10 days of subnormal temperatures.”
Florida, of course, thrives on warmth above all else. The Sunshine State has successfully sold a sweaterless life to retirees. For fish farmers, the subtropical temperatures and high water table made this the best place in America for the outdoor cultivation of tropical fish.
The first entrepreneurs got started in the 1930s, mostly around Miami. When land prices there rose, the farmers moved here to the lake-filled area between Tampa and Orlando.
Their efforts tend to be hidden, down dirt roads on the edge of quiet towns, and largely ignored. As recently as a few years ago, tropical fish were the Number 1 cargo shipment out of Tampa International Airport, but fish farmers complain that not even the hobbyist who pays $100 for an emperor pleco gives much thought to the producer.
“People know there are pet stores, they know there are fish,” said Quillen, 49, who got into the business eight years ago after working as trucker. “I guess they think they just appear or come from the wild.”
In fact, they come from places like his — a family-owned hatchery on 8 hectares marked by 84 man-made, rectangular ponds the size of large swimming pools. There are a few greenhouses, too, steamy fish locker rooms filled with species bred to be red, green, striped, albino or bearded.
It is a world part science fiction — with row after row of concrete water tanks built from the same molds as burial crypts — and part simple farming: most of the workers end up muddy and pungent by the end of the day.
The freeze, however, has transformed the usual routine. Tropical fish begin to have problems when water temperatures dip below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. So for most of the past week, as air temperatures collapsed into the 20s, farmers who should have been filling orders scrambled to cover ponds with plastic and to pump in warm water.
Then, as the cold continued, they started to move as many fish indoors as they could.
At Quillen’s farm, that meant ditching millions of babies to make room for angelfish closer to the size needed for shipping.
At Imperial Tropicals, a few kilometers away, Mike Drawdy said the water temperatures in some of his ponds had dipped to 48 degrees Fahrenheit when he checked them in the morning. That meant catastrophe — and not just from the cold.
Drawdy pointed to a row of three-pronged prints in a pond’s sandy bank. At dawn, he said, a scrum of wading birds feasted on the fish that were either dead or too cold to move.
Later in the day, workers pulled a net through the ponds to collect what they could. Only a few dozen fish came from waters that should have produced thousands. Yucatan mollies, marble mollies, pineapple swords — every pond showed another population diminished.
Drawdy, 31, a commanding former Marine who joined his parents’ business a few years ago, said it would take at least three months to bring the numbers back up to what they
Boozer, at the Tropical Fish Farms Association, said it would take weeks to determine the scope of the damage. In addition to the fish already dead in the ponds, he said, there will also be fish that die later from the temperature swings or from diseases like Ichthyophthirius multifiliis (also known as white spot disease, which makes a sick fish look as if it has been salted).
In the worst cases, federal aid might be available. Farmers with losses of more than 50 percent can file crop insurance claims with the United States Department of Agriculture to receive assistance. The area’s congressman, Adam H. Putnam, a Republican, is closely monitoring the situation.
But for Quillen, Drawdy and many others, the frigid present is their main focus. They are hoping for high temperatures, or at least sunny days without wind. Those conditions help warm the ponds after a cold night. That helps save the fish. And that helps save their businesses.
“There’s nothing more we can do,” Quillen said, standing in the cold. “We’ve done everything.”