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Menhaden Fish

Dead menhaden have been found on West Meadow Beach. Photo by Laurie Vetere

Residents have noticed large numbers of fish found dead on local beaches, though environmentalists said people should not be alarmed.

A dead menhaden found on West Meadow Beach. Photo by Jay Gao

Co-founder of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, George Hoffman, said a few weeks ago, residents started reporting that as they were walking along West Meadow Beach they noticed a large amount of dead menhaden, a type of forage fish that is also known as a bunker fish. Others have also spotted the menhaden around Setauket and Port Jefferson harbors.

Hoffman said the task force reached out to local scientists, and a few residents contacted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as well. The DEC told residents that the die-off events were not unusual. The type of fish swim in large schools and are vulnerable to low dissolved oxygen. The DEC is collecting fish samples for analysis by Stony Brook University’s Marine Animal Disease Laboratory for further evaluation.

It’s the first time the task force has heard of a large die-off locally, Hoffman said. The task force tests the oxygen levels in local harbors regularly during the summer, and he said this year the levels have been good.

He said while the menhaden are not that large, measuring 8 or 9 inches, together they create an unwelcoming sight.

One of the people who noticed the dead menhaden and notified the task force was South Setauket resident Paul Feinberg, who visits West Meadow Beach regularly.

“My initial reaction to this sight back in early December was quite disturbing,” he said.

Bill Lucey, the soundkeeper from Connecticut-based Save the Sound, said the dead menhaden have been spotted along the Connecticut shoreline of the Long Island Sound, too. He has also heard reports of them washing up in the New York City and Hudson River areas.

Lucey said menhaden usually migrate earlier and they may have missed a migration cue due to warmer waters and a larger amount of plankton, which they eat, this year. However, once the temperatures dropped and the plankton died off, they may have faced problems, especially older fish that are less resilient. Normally around this time of year, the bunker fish can be found spawning along the shore of the Carolinas.

Another reason, Lucey said, that residents may be spotting an excess of dead menhaden is that there are more of them in general due to state-imposed fishing regulations. He said a friend of his was on the water fishing earlier this year when he felt a small earthquake in the Sound. His friend saw the menhaden jumping out of the water. Others have mentioned the increased number of bunkers to Lucey, too.

“One sailor said he hadn’t seen that many fish in 57 years,” he said.

Lucey said the increase in the amount of fish is a good thing. Hopefully the harvesting will be sustainable and the population will continue to increase as the bunker fish will attract predators such as humpback whales and bald eagles.

Residents “see a problem, but really it’s potentially a good sign that we have a huge robust population of the forage fish,” he said.

Local environmentalist John Turner agreed. He said with an increase again of menhaden they have been fueling a resurgence of the coastal ecosystem.

“It’s called a forage fish because it feeds and actually filters through the water, so it pulls algae and plankton out of the water, and it converts the microscopic plants that are in the oceans into animal protein,” Turner said. “Then that goes up the food chain again to the whales.”

He added that the menhaden can even be credited with an increase of bald eagles and ospreys in the area.

Lucey said when residents see dead menhaden on the beach to leave the carcasses as the fish will provide food for shoreline birds, which is especially important now that the temperatures are dipping, and there are less fish to be found in the water.

Suffolk officials discuss environmental issues facing Long Island after thousands of dead fish washed ashore in Riverhead. Photo by Alex Petroski

The estimated nearly 100,000 dead bunker fish that have washed ashore in Riverhead may seem astounding, but it wasn’t all that surprising to the panel of experts brought before the Suffolk County Health Committee on Thursday.

In late May, the thousands of dead bunker fish, formally known as Atlantic menhaden fish, began appearing in the Peconic Estuary, an area situated between the North and South Forks of Long Island. According to a June 2 press release from the Peconic Estuary Program, the bunker fish died as a result of low dissolved oxygen in the water. This shortage of oxygen is called hypoxia.

Walter Dawydiak, director of the county’s environmental quality division, who serves on the panel, which was organized by the health committee chairman, Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), testified that the number of dead fish was at or approaching 100,000.

“This one is bigger and worse than any,” Dawydiak said.

According to the PEP, which is part of the National Estuary Program and seeks to conserve the estuary, bunker are filter-feeding fish and an important food source for many predatory fish, including striped bass and blue fish.

Alison Branco, the program’s director, said the fish are likely being chased into shallow waters by predators, but are dying because of low dissolved oxygen levels in the waters. In addition, an algae bloom is contributing to the low levels and is fueled by excess nitrogen loading. Much of that nitrogen comes from septic systems, sewage treatment plants and fertilizer use.

“We’ve reach a point where this kind of hypoxia was run of the mill. We expect it every summer,” Branco, who also served as a panelist, said following the hearing.

While magnitude of the fish kill was astounding, the experts said they weren’t so surprised that it happened.

“I definitely thought it could happen at any time,” Christopher Gobler, a biologist at Stony Brook University, said in a one-on-one interview after the panel hearing. “There’s been an oxygen problem there all along.”

Gobler called it largest fish kill he’d seen in 20 years.

According to panel members, the worst of the fish kill occurred between May 27 and May 30.

Branco did suggest that this shocking environmental event could be turned into a positive if the right measures are taken sooner rather than later.

“It’s always shocking to see a fish kill,” she said. “As much as we don’t want to have things like that happen I think the silver lining is that it did capture the public’s attention.”

Prevention of a fish kill this large is possible, according to Branco. While preventing the harmful algal blooms is not possible, reducing the frequency and severity can be done if the amount of nitrogen in the coastal water supply is controlled.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an environmental policy advocacy group, agreed that curtailing the amount of nitrogen in the water is the easiest and most impactful way for prevention of a fish kill of this magnitude.

“The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step,” Esposito said in response to a question about the daunting task of fixing the Island’s sewage treatment techniques and facilities on a limited budget.

Esposito described the roughly $5 million from New York State, which was allotted to Suffolk County to deal with cleaning the coastal water supply, as seed money. Esposito and Branco both said they believe the commitment of time and money required to solve the nitrogen problem in the water supply will be vast.

“We can do this,” she said. “We have to do it. We have no choice.”