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Mother Lagoon

Remote, shallow and salty, the Laguna Madre offers recreational bliss as well as conservation challenges.

By Whitney Bishop

April 2024 Issue

Laguna Madre

Named “Mother Lagoon” by Spanish explorers, the Laguna Madre's shallow waters stretchmore than 100 miles from
Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande.

The most unspoiled bay system in Texas, it's known for its vast seagrass meadows, huge bird populations and bountiful fishing grounds. Much of its shoreline is protected from development, with the vast barrier island of Padre Island National Seashore on the east and some of the state's largest ranches on the west. It's long (130 miles), skinny (average 5 miles across) and shallow (4 feet deep or less in most spots). And it's salty — it is one of six hypersaline coastal lagoons worldwide.

coastline

With its semi-arid climate and hypersalinity, the Laguna Madre might seem inhospitable to life, yet it is one of our most productive bay systems, with abundant and vital populations of fish and birds. The Laguna Madre accounts for almost 80 percent of all Texas seagrass beds, which provide protective nursery areas for juvenile fish and fertile feeding grounds for adult fish. The wind-tidal flats and barrier island beaches offer critical habitat for many shorebirds and represent some of the best stopover sites for migrating birds making the long trek between the Americas.

The unique habitats and wildlife of the Laguna Madre give it an irresistible allure for Texas anglers and bird-watchers, who seek out everything from redfish to reddish egrets, but also mean it's especially vulnerable to disruption, with scientists and conservationists keeping a watchful eye on this Texas treasure.

Birds and More Birds

Many Texans first experience the Laguna Madre as they drive across it at one of two crossings that lead to the beaches of Padre Island: Corpus Christi's JFK Causeway and Port Isabel's Highway 100. Pelicans dive down to the water's surface, and seagulls coast overhead. The birds let you know something: You've almost made it to the beach.

The Laguna Madre is a hotspot for migrating birds — and the people who enjoy them. During the spring and fall migrations, nearly 2 billion birds pass through Texas, a major bird corridor.

“We're at the bottom end of the Texas funnel,” says Javier Gonzalez, an educator and naturalist with the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary.

Padre Island Birding Nature center

At the nature center last fall, Gonzalez went out looking for birds during migration season with 9-year-old birder Elle Hable.

“I've always been fascinated [by] animals,” Elle says. ”And once I figured out what the Birding and Nature Center was, I found this pair of binoculars that my grandfather gave me in the closet. And then we just went to try it. And now it's just amazing.”

The Laguna Madre sits along the Central Flyway, and during fall migration, birds catch rides on the strong winds of cold fronts blowing from the north.

”Migration is one of those spectacles of nature,” Gonzalez says. ”It's a perfect opportunity to see a wide range of bird species. Today we've had a really good migration day. We've seen ruby-crowned kinglets almost everywhere we look. We saw a western tanager, plenty of eastern phoebes.”

Resident birds are plentiful, too. A great blue heron makes a lumbering takeoff, brown pelicans paddle across the water, roseate spoonbills feed in the tidal mudflats, and a yellow-crowned night heron lurks in the mangroves. The Laguna Madre contains habitat for many wading birds and shorebirds — 30 shorebird species and 20 gull and tern species have been recorded in the area.

”The world wouldn't be as cool as it is without birds and the things that birds do,” Elle says.
More than two dozen waterfowl species fly to Texas for wintering habitats, including white-fronted geese from Alaska, Canada geese from the Arctic, plus mallards, northern pintails and canvasbacks.

Some birds rest on the Texas coast for only a short time before moving farther south to Central and South America, while some birds end their migration there. One species' survival is directly tied to the Laguna Madre; almost 80 percent of North America's redhead duck population winters there, feeding on the bay's rich seagrass.

”The Lower Laguna Madre is a unique bay system,” Gonzalez says. ”It's a hypersaline lagoon, one of only a few in the world. What makes it special is it's such a shallow body of water, and since it's so salty we can get freezes down here and the bays don't freeze because of the high salinity. That's perfect for birds because they can always find something to eat.”

Anglers: The Next Generation

laguna fishing

Bird-Watchers aren't the only wildlife enthusiasts out on the waters of the Mother Lagoon. Like generations before them, a new wave of anglers is fishing the bay. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi's Islander Anglers Club is like many college groups — a way to meet people, have fun and take a break from studying. The meeting room isn't bad either — the wild and watery Laguna Madre, one of the most productive fishing areas of the state.

Club members John Neblett, Liam Qureshi and Megan Little headed out on the Laguna Madre just south of Corpus Christi for a day of fishing. “I have fished a lot of the bays in Texas, and the Laguna Madre is by far the best kind of fishery you can get just because of how different the water is down here,” Qureshi says. “It's such a beautiful, beautiful place.”

The Laguna Madre is widely known for its extensive shallow waters and lush seagrass flats. It hosts a diverse
range of in-shore and near-shore species, with more finfish than anywhere else along the coast. Redfish and speckled seatrout are some of the top targets. There's also snook, tarpon and flounder.

The A&M-Corpus Christi anglers were after yet another kind of fish. “Today we're looking for black drum,” Neblett says. “I'm really just scanning the water; I'm looking for tails. Ideally you want to see a tail and try to throw right in front of which way you think the fish is facing.

angular cast in laguna laguna fish catch

After a while, Neblett reeled one in. “To me, black drum by far are the best eating,” he says, holding his catch.

Qureshi caught one as well. “You can hear these guys drumming underwater,” he says. “I's really cool.”

Little grabbed her rod and her go-to pink Gulp bait and started off targeting trout. She grew up in the area and says it's hard not to fish when you live in a place where the fishing is so good.

“My dad, he used to put me in a little ice chest on his boat,” she says. “He'd go out and fish with me and my sister. I've always been out on the water.”
In addition to catching fish, this club is also collecting data on fish in the bay.

Students tag certain species of fish they catch to provide data to the Sportfish Center for Science and Conservation at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. The Sportfish Center collects this information to better understand how fish interact with the environment through their movement patterns and growth rate.

“Once we started working with the Sportfish Center, the club really blew up,” Neblett says. The club got more recognition, which in turn attracted sponsors for club fishing tournaments.

Qureshi says he joined the group as a freshman and immediately started making friends. “We all share a passion and love for the outdoors in the water. And it's really good to make friends like that. They are going to last forever.”

The Laguna Madre could use friends like these.

Bringing Back the Bay

taking a sample from laguna

As Dawn breaks on a sweltering September morning, Lucero Barraza paddles her kayak on Baffin Bay near Corpus Christi.

She takes a moment to marvel at a horizon filled with water, but this isn't a leisurely trip. She's packed a thermos-sized container to scoop up water samples from the bay. A graduate student at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, she's researching how an imbalance in the bay's ecosystem affects water quality along the Coastal Bend.

She's not the only one keeping tabs on the bay.

The local anglers were the first to notice something was wrong in Baffin Bay, one of the largest inlets of the Laguna Madre.

drone shot of boat in laguna

“We've heard stories from the 1960s and '70s that the water was so clear you could drop a lure in the water and track it almost to the bottom,” says Mike Wetz, Harte Research Institute Chairman for Coastal Ecosystem Processes. “And then sometime in the '80s, the switch kind of flipped. Anglers started noticing that they couldn't see more than five or six inches deep.”

And that wasn't the only problem. There were periodic large fish kills that seemed to go beyond natural die-offs from weather and disease. Harmful alga blooms blocked sunlight from reaching the microscopic phytoplankton that form the base of the bay's ecosystem. And in 2012, the black drum population got out of balance, resulting in too many fish with not enough to eat. Black drum coming out of the bay were so emaciated, commercial fish sellers refused to sell any from Baffin that year.


Texas' Five Seagrass Species

The Laguna Madre accounts for almost 80 percent of all Texas seagrass beds, which provide protective nursery areas for juvenile fish and fertile feeding grounds for adult fish.

Manatee grass

Manatee grass

Cymodocea filiformis

Star grass

Star grass

Halophila engelmannii

Shoal Grass

Shoal Grass

Halodule beaudettei

Widgeon grass

Widgeon grass

Ruppia maritima

Turtle grass

Turtle grass

Thalassia testudinum

Watch the Texas Parks & Wildlife TV show episode on Laguna Madre the week of March 31-April 6 on Texas PBS stations.


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