Countless dead menhaden, or bunker fish, that carpeted the Shinnecock Canal last week have dispersed into the Atlantic Ocean, while some now rest on the bottom of the bay, and on local beaches.
Fish kills are a natural phenomenon that occur from time to time in bodies of water and are typically caused by a lack of dissolved oxygen when a massive number of fish gather. Most believe the bunker were chased by predatory fish, like bluefish and striped bass, through the Shinnecock Inlet, up into Shinnecock Bay and into a closed lock at the canal, where they were trapped in enormous numbers, depleting the dissolved oxygen in the water and suffocating.
Originally, the dead fish were expected to float to the surface and become a potential nuisance because of their rancid odor, but winds and currents prevented that from happening.
“We tried to figure out how to manage what might happen,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said at a Town Board work session on Thursday, November 17. He said if the fish ended up on the beaches they could have presented more of a public nuisance than a health problem because of the smell.
On Wednesday, November 16, town officials had sent a couple of divers into the canal to find out what the biomass at the bottom was like, and in one spot, called the riptide basin, the dead bunker were over 18 inches deep.
Mr. Schneiderman said the town didn’t have an idea of how much biomass was at the bottom but found that a lot of dead fish went out through the Shinnecock Inlet. Mr. Schneiderman also said there was a seven-mile stretch where bunker washed up on beaches—but seagulls were taking care of that.
“Driving over the bridge yesterday, it looked like a pretty normal day in Shinnecock Bay,” Mr. Schneiderman said late last week.
Although the mess was not as bad as expected, those who live along the edges of the bays are not out of the woods yet. On Saturday, Southampton Town Trustee Scott Horowitz said, the south travel bay at Jackson’s Marina in Hampton Bays was covered in dead bunker fish. Other people have pointed out that areas like the northern shores of the Shinnecock Bay still really stink, because the dead fish have settled and become exposed to air.
“We may have to start helping the process along as the fish start to float up and get trapped in areas,” Mr. Horowitz said. “The fish carcasses that are trapped in tight areas in a large concentration will probably require intervention.”
On Saturday morning, Mr. Horowitz said the Trustees helped coordinate an effort with the Town Parks Department, Marine Maintenance, Waste Management and bay constables to alleviate the situation at Jackson’s Marina. Working together, they removed over 5,000 pounds of dead bunker from the marina.
Chris Paparo, manager of the Marine Sciences Center at the Stony Brook Southampton campus, said on Thursday that he had seen the dead fish along the north side of eastern Shinnecock Bay. “When the locks first opened, there was a large mat of dead fish, but it dispersed throughout the bay,” he said in an email. “The whole scene is a bit crazy, but it is a natural event.”
For the past couple of days, Mr. Paparo said, the canal has been packed with bunker, which are common this time of year. But with imposed regulations from the National Marine Fisheries Services on a fish that was unregulated in the past, the numbers show a sign of hope.
“Bunker are the most important forage fish on the East Coast,” Mr. Paparo said. “Their upswing is why we are seeing more whales, dolphins and sharks locally. Fix the ‘food,’ and everything up the food chain benefits.”
Inside the canal, the number of live bunker at times looked like an unbreakable wall. “If you go to the canal right now, it is a sight to see,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “There are so many fish.”
When the fish kill initially occurred, Mr. Schneiderman and other town officials, including two of the Town Trustees, Mr. Horowitz and Ed Warner Jr., met to come up with a plan of action just in case the fish surfaced and created a stink. One idea they floated was to dispose of the dead fish at the Jackson Avenue landfill—but now that it doesn’t appear that the fish are going to surface, officials will not have to take that route.
“We really, in many ways, got lucky that nature took care of it and the inlet flushed much of the dead fish out,” Mr. Schneiderman said.