Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Small Fish, Big Stink

The New York Daily News reported yesterday that local residents are outraged about stinky dead fish. In the town of Howard Beach, located in Queens just west of JFK airport, there’s a canal called the Shellbank Basin. It opens into Jamaica Bay, home to fish known as menhaden (or “bunker” in the local argot). Every so often, predators like bluefish drive a school of menhaden into the canal, where low oxygen content kills many of them. The result—a floating mass of rotting fish and loud complaints from the neighbors.

No doubt it’s an unpleasant situation, but it’s hardly unique.

Bad-smelling fish die-offs are a regular occurrence in some places. The Neawanna River on the Oregon coast is periodically choked with dead anchovies. In the District of Columbia alewives swim up the Potomac River from the Chesapeake Bay to spawn in the Tidal Basin. The females die after laying eggs.  Sea gulls gorge themselves on the sushi and strew the stinky leftovers among the Japanese Cherry Trees.  The timing is bad for tourism: it usually happens only days before the beginning of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Alewives achieve their olfactory apotheosis in Lake Michigan, where they give Chicago its most notorious malodor. When alewives first entered the Great Lakes in the 1930s they were kept in check by the native lake trout which preyed on them. When lamprey eels began killing the trout, the alewife population soared—by the late 1960s they were about eighty percent of all fish in Lake Michigan. The annual post-spawning die-off grew to epic proportions. The one in 1967 was the biggest and stinkiest of them all: an estimated one million pounds of alewives washed up along the Chicago lakefront. Selective poisoning of the lampreys, and reintroduction of predators like trout and coho salmon, have since reduced the alewife population to ten percent of the lake’s fish. But each spring some alewife carcasses float to shore and begin to stink.

UPDATE 9/16/08, 3:25 p.m.
It looks like it's not just a New York thing.  The NBC-TV affiliate in Hartford reported today that dead menhaden are floating to the surface of the Branford River in Branford, Connecticut, and stinking up the joint. (Branford is on the shoreline of Long Island Sound.) According to Channel 30, state environmental officials attribute the fish-kill to those pesky bluefish driving schools of menhaden up the river into low-oxygen waters.

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