Dead fish being hauled from Ocean City beaches

Change in temperature of water killed croakers

August 05, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Sun worshipers heading to the beaches in Ocean City this weekend can expect to find fewer dead fish than early this week, when thousands washed ashore after a massive fish kill.

Since Tuesday, public works crews driving backhoes have been hauling away truckloads of rotting Atlantic croakers killed by a sudden change in water temperatures. The last of the fish are expected to wash ashore over the next few days, according to officials with the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Roughly a million of the pinkish croakers - ranging from 6 inches to 2 feet long - started landing on beaches from Delaware to Virginia on Saturday. They fell victim to a natural weather phenomenon called a temperature inversion, in which winds push aside warm top water, and cold bottom water rises in its place, causing a sudden drop in surface temperatures, said Charles Poukish, a program manager for the MDE.

Scientists have found no signs of disease or pollution but said croakers are especially vulnerable to temperature changes.

James N. Mathias Jr., mayor of Ocean City, said that most of the fish had been removed from the beaches by yesterday morning and that sunbathers had returned.

"The tide has turned, no pun intended," Mathias said. "Our public works crews have been doing a great job to remove the smell from the beach. And now the winds have switched around, and the phenomenon seems to be moving beyond us."

The kill was one of the largest in memory along Maryland's Atlantic seaboard, according to state officials.

Kills of a few hundred fish are common in tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay, but they are less so along the Atlantic coast, Poukish said.

"Maryland has not experienced something this size in at least 20 years, nothing of this magnitude," Poukish said.

The croaker has historically favored warmer southern waters. But it has been migrating north over the decades as ocean temperatures have warmed, perhaps because of global warming, said Thomas Grothues, a fish biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

This northward movement may have played a role in the dying off, with the fish vulnerable because they were in waters at the colder end of what they could tolerate, Grothues said. This type of weather-driven incident could be nature's way of limiting their range to their native warmer waters, he said.

The economic effect on Ocean City was minimal, in part, because Monday and Tuesday -the height of the fish kill - were rainy days, when few people would have been on the beach, Mathias said.

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