DARIEN — In a year of strange and unprecedented events, yet another has washed ashore in Darien.
Residents have noted an increase in dead fish on the waterways of the town and its surrounding areas, one particularly at Ring’s End Bridge near Gorham’s Pond. All the fish have been the same species, Atlantic menhanden, know as bunker.
Will Healey, media relations for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said they have received multiple reports of a menhaden fish dead in the Long Island Sound over the last few weeks.
“We believe this is likely due to a natural event, possibly related to cold water temperatures and abnormally high abundance of menhaden within inshore areas for this late in the fall, but we are still investigating,” Healey said.
Local officials noted it is not a Darien-specific issue.
“I understand this situation has affected bunker fish from Branford to the Hudson River, so it is not a local issue. I know that DEEP has been asked but am not aware of whether they have investigated,” said David Knauf, director of Darien’s Department of Public Health.
On Dec. 1, Riverkeeper.org stated that dead fish have been reported in shoreline areas of New York and New Jersey as well.
Over the last two weeks, Riverkeeper has received numerous reports of dead and dying fish spotted throughout a 60-mile area from New York Harbor north along the Hudson to Mystery Point in Garrison, and as far away as the North Fork of Long Island.
More were seen scattered along the shorelines at Red Hook, Brooklyn; Englewood Cliffs, Manhattan’s West Side, Piermont Pier, Tarrytown, Ossining and Cortlandt. They were seen by the hundreds at Croton-on-Hudson over the weekend.
Riverkeeper reported observers took videos of fish gasping for air while swimming in circles and dying in the waters off the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Horan’s Landing in Sleepy Hollow. Dead fish were also reported earlier this month along the Newark Bay shoreline in Bayonne, N.J.
Bill Cavers, chairman of Darien’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Waters, said he has consulted with Peter Linderoth, water quality director for Save the Sound.
According to Linderoth, many on the Sound are seeing dead menhaden.
“There are an extraordinary number of bunker this year. Peter just went from the Bronx to Bridgeport (on a boat) this morning and saw a nearly continuous line of bunker the whole way, “ Cavers said.
One theory is that these large numbers overgrazed, using up their local food supplies, and a die-out has resulted.
“Peter says that DEEP also is wondering if the fish became skinny and then the lowering of water temperatures is then killing some off,” Cavers said. “... There are many deaths in the Hudson River also, and New York DEC is doing a study to see if a virus might be to blame.”
According to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, menhaden are typically found in large, tightly packed schools. They prefer inshore waters during warmer months and are most common in estuaries and tidal creeks. They spawn and spend the fall and winter offshore of more southern states and migrate north to Connecticut during the spring. Schools typically swim near the surface, where they can often be seen flipping and splashing.
DEEP reports that menhaden are an important forage fish for large predatory fishes, such as striped bass and bluefish. There is a large Atlantic Coast commercial fishery for menhaden. Most of the fish are processed into fishmeal for animal feed and the fish oil is used as a base in food additives. Menhaden numbers in Connecticut are lower than during the 1970s, but this is considered to be a cyclic phenomenon and the Atlantic population in general is considered to be stable.
The CT Fisheries Advisory Meeting held a meeting on Thursday and Bill Lucey, Long Island Soundkeeper for Save the Sound.
DEEP also tweeted out their findings regarding the dead fish on Thursday.
“Basically we had a gigantic number of Menhaden in Long Island Sound this fall. One theory is that many of the fish missed a migration cue, which may have been due to warmer temperatures,” Lucey said.
Lucey also said that with that many fish in the Sound there could have been an issue with plankton availability as the temperatures got colder so they were not getting enough food. He added that the weaker fish succumbed to both less food and colder water.
“Many of the fish have moved out now and headed south. Traditional spawning grounds in late autumn are typically off the Carolina coasts, but climate is changing and seems to be affecting the normal movements of many species,” he said.
Regardless of the dead fish sightings, Lucey said that menhaden are the “most abundant stock out there” and their population size remains “excellent.”
“Additionally quota reductions and the recent passage of ecosystem based management targets for this species is all geared to increasing the biomass of menhaden for other species such as striped bass and bluefish. Additionally, species such as eagles, ospreys, whales and seals will benefit to greater prey abundance,” he said.
Lucey added that despite the dead fish sightings, “the sheer number that are still swimming around in places like Blackrock Harbor, Bridgeport illustrate pretty clearly that the mortality rate is very low compared to the overall population and the die offs are natural given the environmental conditions.”
He added that it is likely residents will be seeing more dead fish in the coming days.