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May 29, 2015 4:51 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Bunker Die-Off Investigated In Peconic River, Reeves Bay In Flanders

Dead bunker washed up on the shoreline around Reeves Bay in Flanders this week. SHAYE WEAVER
Jun 3, 2015 11:56 AM

Tens of thousands of dead bunker washed up on the shores of the Peconic River and Flanders Bay within the last two weeks—with the number of fish, and the smell, peaking on Thursday and Friday of last week.

Although a bunker die-off is a natural occurrence, Southampton Town officials and environmentalists alike have been digging around for an underlying cause because of the sheer number of fish that piled up—in some areas more than a foot high. Environmentalists say the fish died as a direct result of algal blooms, while other cite a number of possible factors.

“It’s sad to see that many fish die off, and, unfortunately, we can’t do anything with them,” Southampton Town Trustee Eric Shultz said on Friday after filling a dump truck with dead fish. “When I was up there in the river, there was still a tremendous [number] of fish in the river alive—giant schools with bluefish swarming around, chasing them.”

Mr. Shultz took a small group out on Friday and early this week to clean up the fish kill, picking them up with pitchforks. The crew took the dead fish to the North Sea transfer station.

During Monday’s Trustees meeting, Mr. Shultz said that at Iron Point in Flanders, he saw a tremendous number of fish swimming under the dead ones, and a 200-square-foot school of live fish.

Each year, bunker go into estuaries to spawn and are typically chased into shallow waters by their predators, typically bluefish and bass. When they are cornered in shallow waters, where there is less oxygen, they suffocate.

“When you have that many fish pushed up into a tight area, that’s what tends to happen,” Mr. Shultz said. “They get starved for oxygen.”

There could be a number of factors contributing to the large number of bunker killed off this year, however. According to Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, there may be an abundance of bunker because the State Department of Environmental Conservation has placed a fishing quota on them, 6,000 pounds daily. Five or 10 years ago, the species was unmanaged.

The town, the Trustees and the DEC have also been collecting water samples to check nitrogen levels, which could have limited the oxygen in the bays and further choked the fish.

Mr. Shultz said while the fish kill is a natural occurrence, there could be some water problems stemming from pollution, like an incident in which 2.5 million gallons of raw sewage from Riverhead Town’s sewage treatment facility was dumped into the Peconic River last November. The sewage was just a mile and a half away from shellfish growing grounds, he said.

To add insult to injury, hundreds of terrapin turtle carcasses have washed onto beaches from Flanders Bay in Flanders to Sebonac Creek in Shinnecock Hills since late April. Experts say a marine biotoxin being absorbed by shellfish, the primary food source of terrapin turtles, is the cause.

Kevin McAllister, the founder of the water quality advocacy group Defend H20, said that the death of hundreds of turtles is not completely separate from the fish kill. “The terrapins, the bunker—it’s all related, in my professional opinion,” he said on Tuesday. “Conditions were ripe for the fish kill to happen.”

Dr. Christopher Gobler, a marine science professor at Stony Brook University who tested the waters in the Peconic River, Terrys Creek, Reeves and Flanders bays, and Meetinghouse Creek last week to assess the situation, said “mahogany tide,” an algal bloom, is likely to blame for the large number of dead fish.

“This is significantly more intense,” he said of the fish die-off. “Along with the fish kill, there are intense algal blooms. It’s down in the whole area, well beyond Reeves Bay. These areas are starting with lower levels of oxygen because of heavy nutrient loads. The Peconic River has been sick with this stuff for several weeks.”

Dr. Gobler explained that mahogany tide creates oxygen during the day and at night sucks it back in. The DEC says that oxygen should never go below 3 milligrams of oxygen per liter, he said. At midday on Thursday, May 28, Dr. Gobler measured a meager 1 milligram of oxygen per liter of water. He said it was likely that at night the oxygen level was even lower.

“This is just a sign of what’s going on with heavy nitrogen loads, which have a bunch of cascading effects on coastal water. It’s emblematic of one of those effects,” he said of the kill. “In that artery, it’s no surprise, because the sewage treatment plant is there—its outflow is under the bridge. There is the golf course and the duck farm, and cesspools. In the end, it’s this kind of thing that motivates people … enough is enough.”

The Nature Conservancy echoed that on Tuesday, stating that the fish kill was not a natural phenomenon, because data showed that oxygen levels were depleted before it happened, hinting that the problem stems from algal blooms caused by nitrogen pollution.

“Such occurrences will become the norm if we don’t reduce 30 to 50 percent of the nitrogen going into the Peconic Estuary,” said Kevin McDonald, the conservation finance and policy director for The Nature Conservancy on Long Island. “Some progress has been made to reduce nitrogen pollution on Long Island. Now, all levels of government and the communities and responsible businesses need to take further action.”

Aside from taking the remaining dead bunker to the landfill, town officials hope the tide will change and wash some of the carcasses away and let nature take its course.

“We do know there is a sort of cycle to this, where we’ve witnessed many times in the past [that] they sink to the bottom in very short order and then actually become feed for bottom feeders,” Ms. Throne-Holst said.

Mr. McAllister said, however, that having so many fish rotting on the creek or bay bottom would further suppress oxygen levels.

“It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “We’ll have a revolving scenario over the course of the summer—which pond or bay is next for an explosion of algal blooms? We have to do something about it—and it’s going to require bold actions.”

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And the costs of the exploitation of our home are coming due...
By Mr. Z (11670), North Sea on May 29, 15 9:44 PM
should be selling the dead bunker to the tackle shops to grind into chum!!
By Jaws (244), Amity Island on May 30, 15 1:16 AM
Gee could this have anything to do with Riverhead releasing sewage into the bay from their sewage treatment plant?. Apprently they had permission to dump tens ofthousands and thousands of gallons of sewage into the bay system. I think the clean up should begin there!
By North Sea Citizen (564), North Sea on May 30, 15 6:31 AM
1 member liked this comment
Things (in theory) will improve starting in 2016:

"Beginning in 2016, the Riverhead Sewer District plant, located next to the [Indian Island] golf course, will pump 350,000 gallons of water per day -- almost half the daily volume treated by the plant -- into the course's irrigation system during months when the course is watered."
By Nature (2966), Southampton on May 30, 15 12:03 PM
By AL (82), southampton on Jun 9, 15 6:30 AM
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