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Dry-down contributes to stranded catfish frenzy at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Video captured what looked like hundreds of catfish lapping over alligators at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Collier County recently. We first shared this story with viewers Wednesday. We went a little further and wanted to know why this was happening.

We learned a current dry-down is impacting Southwest Florida wildlife Thursday and is a cause for what was a catfish feast for other wildlife at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. And experts told us the more frequent dry-downs in the region are cause for this wildlife activity.

“I looked out, and it just was like, ‘What is this rising mass of fish? What’s going on here?’” said Allyson Webb, the senior resource manager at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

Webb caught the frenzy of catfish around some gators on camera — and with her nose.

“It was like a one-two punch,” Webb said. “The sound and then the odor. But, I mean, how cool is it that we have alligators here?”

The yearly dry-down in at the sanctuary can strand fish, such as the catfish, in ponds.

And, while it’s normally a feast for wading birds this time around, alligators, turtles and black vultures joined in.

But there’s something else happening when the swamp dries down.

“We would dry down once every five years or so, and what we’re seeing now is we’re drying down, like we are this year, four out of five years,” said Dr. Shawn Clem, the sanctuary’s research director. “So it’s much more frequent than it was historically.”

That could have greater impacts throughout the swamp

“While on an individual basis a fish can survive when it dries down every summer, a population is smaller because they need this long period of water to really build up a big population,” Clem said. “And it’s that big fish population that feeds alligators and wading birds and all of the other predators in the wetland.”

Another potential threat is fire.

“If we were to get wildfire that came all the way into the heart of those cypress in corkscrew, crews wouldn’t be able to get in there to put the fire out,” Clem said. “We would have to wait for the wet season to return, for the groundwater to rise, and for Mother Nature to essentially put that fire out.”

Now, we wait for the rain and for nature to take its course.

We also checked to see when the sanctuary may reopen. The staff does not have a set date currently.

Reporter:Stephanie Byrne
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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