New York State, Suffolk County and Southampton Town officials are monitoring a spate of fish kills in western Shinnecock Bay this week after an estimated tens of thousands of bunker were found dead in the water and on nearby shores.
The first event was reported Aug. 28 near the Shinnecock Shores community in East Quogue, the second on Saturday evening in Tiana Bay and a third, also near Shinnecock Shores, on Tuesday night, said Christopher Gobler, a Stony Brook University professor and the director of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology.
Gobler noted that fish kills are a natural occurrence but that the frequency of these three in a short amount of time is strange.
“One [fish kill] in one day is not too unusual. Two becomes more unusual,” Gobler said. “Three in a week is a lot.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is working with the county Department of Health Services as well as Stony Brook University to monitor the die-offs, a DEC spokeswoman said Thursday. The county was expected to take water samples on Thursday, and the DEC and county would attempt to capture distressed fish for testing, she said. Town officials are also monitoring the situation to determine what, if any, action to take.
“These are not enormous events and they are not unexpected,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “We are going to monitor and see how much bunker we have. I’m not sounding an environmental alarm here.”
Bunker, also known as menhaden, are a schooling bait fish that are especially vulnerable to low oxygen levels in water, according to the DEC. Low oxygen levels can be triggered by a large number of fish in a small area, excessive algal growth or warm temperatures, and cause a die-off.
Gobler said oxygen levels in the area were already low and that his staffers measured dissolved oxygen levels nearby at 1.6 milligrams per liter on Aug. 26. The lowest DEC standard for marine life is 3 milligrams per liter.
In 2015, three successive fish kills in the Peconic River killed hundreds of thousands of fish. Rising water temperatures, the timing and magnitude of algal blooms, and an unusually large amount of frightened fish in one location caused those events, according to a joint study. Tens of thousands of menhaden also died of suffocation in 2016 when they got caught in the Shinnecock Canal.
Ed Warner Jr., president of the Southampton Town trustees, a governing body charged with overseeing some town waterways, said the presence of bait fish can be a sign of the bay’s health and noted that millions of bunker hatched this year.
“There are a lot of juveniles in the bay, which is good for the ecosystem,” Warner said.