State officials began an investigation Tuesday on the cause and scope of an apparent fish kill in the Neuse River.
Jill Paxson, a senior environmental specialist with the Estuarine Monitoring Team of the N.C. Division of Environmental and Natural Resources, said the fish kill, involving primarily Atlantic menhaden, ranged from east of Johnson Point to west of Flanners Beach on the south side of the Neuse River.
The fish were all between four and five inches long and some of them had lesions.
Mitchell Blake, Neuse riverkeeper, said he had done an initial investigation east of Johnson Point and taken water samples to send to the N.C. Division of Water Quality and to N.C. State University.
“It’s not a massive fish kill,” Blake said. “We got a visual on several hundred dead menhaden in that area east of Johnson’s Point.”
But there were more dead fish scattered on the beach at Flanners Beach on Tuesday.
Richard Dodson, of New Bern, who was walking his dog along Flanners Beach Tuesday morning, said he had seen the fish floating ashore since Sunday.
“This is the most it’s been for the last three days,” he said. “The first day it was just like here and there and now it’s all over the place. I was shocked at how bad it is.”
Dodson said he had seen more dead fish farther down the beach during his walk.
‘It’s a lot worse down there,” he said, pointing east down the beach where hundreds, if not thousands of menhaden lay strewn about the water’s edge.
Some of the fish had been scattered higher up on the beach indicating that waves or tide had cast them up earlier. The northerly and easterly winds partially dried them out and covered them with sand.
“It was called in just as a concern of some menhaden that were seen with sores on them, and we went out to take a look at it and when we started to get into the area where all the seagulls were at, of course there were some dead fish in that area,” Blake said.
Some of the dead fish had sores ranging from the size of a pencil eraser to the width of a dime on mostly the undersides of the carcasses.
Paxson said much research has been done on the lesions that primarily show up on menhaden.
“They seem to be more sensitive to environmental changes,” Paxson said. “They are a bit fragile. The estuarine environment is very stressful for any type of aquatic life.”
Paxson said that water samples from Blake and fellow state environmental specialist Burt Simons will be analyzed for phosphorus, nitrogen, nitrates, phosphates, chlorophyll A and basically the suite of algal bloom samples.
As of yet, the cause of the kill and the exact number of fish affected is not known.
“It’s not uncommon to have fish kills this time of year or any time during the summer,” Paxson said. “Typically this time of year we get blooms in the surface waters because it is so warm and we also see a salt wedge that comes in from the sound that’s common that causes a stratification in the water column.
“You have fresh water on the top and salt water on the bottom. That’s very typical of an estuarine environment where the river meets the sea. The stratification in the water column slows down the natural diffusion of oxygen from the surface waters to the bottom waters, because salt water is heavier than fresh water.”
Paxson said that she was on the Neuse River from Union Point to Oriental on Monday and conducted tests for pH (alkalinity), dissolved oxygen and salinity.
“There is indication that the dissolved oxygen in the water has improved since two months ago,” Paxson said. “When you have prolonged low dissolved oxygen you call it chronic hypoxia, and that’s when you know at some point in time there’s going to be a school of fish that’s going to get caught in it.”
Paxson’s staff has been cut from nine to three in the last two years, including four staff members who used to work on the Neuse River. With the cuts, she said the office’s ability to respond quickly to fish kills has also been cut. Officials rely on the public to report fish kills quickly so testing can begin right away.
“It’s very important that we get there as soon as possible because water conditions are so variable, especially in an estuarine environment,” Paxson said.
To report a fish kill, call the Neuse River Foundation at 637-7979 or the N.C. Division of Water Quality at 948-3999.