We have been hearing from readers for a couple of weeks now about dead bunker washed up on shorelines, and sickly looking bunker swimming erratically in some of the Island’s creeks and tidal rivers. I stumbled upon some of the same in Islip’s Orowoc Creek and my son Paul saw lots of dead bunker washed up on the shoreline at the mouth of Swan River in Patchogue. The river itself was full of bunker, some floundering on the surface, others swimming erratically as if injured. Those readers we spoke to assumed that lack of oxygen was to blame, a common issue during the dog days of summer when too many bunker get packed into a restricted area and suffer from oxygen depletion. Bunker kills have become a common occurrence during the summer months, but a lack of oxygen is not the culprit this time.
According to John Manascalco of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Marine Resources, they, along with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Division of Fish and Wildlife, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) are actively investigating menhaden mortalities reported since last fall and continuing this spring. These kills have been occurring in the coastal waters of New Jersey and other states in the Northeast, along with New York. Reports we have received recently have been limited to the Island’s South Shore, and a number of kills have occurred in nearby Raritan Bay and Jersey’s Navesink River. There were also numerous reports of bunker kills in Long Island Sound, along the Connecticut Coast, and as far north as Watch Hill, Rhode Island this past December.
“Dead and dying bunker, erratic swimming behavior,” is how Jeff Brust, chief of New Jersey’s Bureau of Marine Fisheries explained it during a New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council meeting earlier this year. He added that “sampling has ruled out some of the normal culprits,” making it clear that oxygen deprivation was not the culprit this time.
According to John Manascalco, the preliminary cause of the die-offs has been identified as an undetermined species of bacteria in the Vibrio family of bacteria. The department is continuing to monitor new reports and gathering live, sickly specimens when possible. They are also taking water samples in the affected areas. More laboratory work needs to be done to determine the specific species of bacteria.
Vibrio species are quite diverse and common in marine habitats, and so far, bunker (menhaden) appear to be the only species being impacted by the bacteria. There is nothing to suggest human health or other fish, shellfish or wildlife are at risk, but the various agencies are recommending that you do not handle or collect any dead fish, or those showing signs of disease. If you observe a bunker kill, or numbers of bunker swimming erratically and looking sickly, you can report it to DEC’s Bureau of Marine Fisheries by calling 631-444-0430.