As John A. Manderson, a research biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s northeast fisheries science center says, “Our ideas of property rights and laws are purely land-based. But the ocean is all about flux and turbulence and movement.”
Written by Erica-Lynn Huberty,
Erica-Lynn Huberty is an author and artist living on Eastern Long Island
What Do Millions Of Dead Fish Mean For Our Planet?
03/06/2017 08:22 am ET | Updated Mar 06, 2017
The air was pungent as I neared the Shinnecock Inlet—a majestic length of water connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Peconic Bay, on the Eastern tip of Long Island. Down the rickety steps to the back deck of a defunct beach club garnered the pitiful sight of hundreds of wide-eyed silver bunker fish, immobile but swirling atop a graveyard of fish sunk below the surface. Breathtakingly eerie, at once beautiful and horrifying, the scene was a fraction of what residents awoke to days prior, on November 14, 2016.
Known as a fish kill, this particular event was not caused by pollutants in the water, though residents immediately feared it might be. An earlier fish kill in the mouth of the Peconic River had been caused by poor water conditions. In 2015 three fish kills left hundreds of thousands of bunkers dead between the Peconic River in Riverhead and Reeves Bay in Flanders, an area with chronically low-dissolved oxygen and increased nitrogen pollution.
This most recent fish kill is widely believed to be the result of bunkers chased by natural predators—bluefish and striped bass—into the canal. The locks are set to close at certain times, depending on the tides, and that Monday’s “super moon” contributed to bad timing all around.
Fish kills have been regularly recorded since the 1930s, but the vast majority have occurred from 1998 to the present. Deaths of over 50 million fish during this time period, in the United State, U.K., Norway, China and other countries, are linked to poor water quality or man-made environmental disasters.
Eastern Long Island has long been revered as a place of natural beauty and important ecosystems. Previous to 1860, when the Shinnecock Canal was built, there were naturally occurring fish kills inhabitants used to their advantage, spreading the fish on crops to help them grow.
A large fish kill is upsetting to some because of the stench and sight alone (how many Hamptonites today would tolerate acres of dead fish adjacent to their favorite farm stand?). The Southampton Town Trustees and bay constable coordinated during this latest fish kill with local fishermen to harvest many of the bunkers, since bunkers are still used for bait. But to most, a large-scale fish kill signifies something more foreboding than foul-smelling landscaping practices. It is the graphic reminder of the potential extinction of our own food supply and the ill-health of the earth we need to feed us.