Millions of dead fish blanket the beach strand

‘Freak’ occurrence may have been caused by suffocation

Millions of dead fish blanketing the beach strand of Wrightsville Beach earlier this week created a scene that one expert called “phenomenal.”

Menhaden fish, which are not typically eaten by humans, began washing up along the beachfront Sunday morning. A cause of the occurrence has not yet been determined.

“I have never seen anything like it,” said Rich Carpenter, manager of the Southern District of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries. “There have been fish kills that are this large, but I have never seen one.”

Carpenter said menhaden are an important food source for many sportfish that are caught, including flounder, trout and Spanish mackerel.

Town manager Bob Simpson said the town has been monitoring the situation since it occurred on Sunday. Through his investigation, Carpenter said that he had ruled out a fishing net being broken and a red tide. “None of the companies are fishing now,” he explained.

Tests came back negative for bacteria that cause a red tide, which is the frequent cause of fish kills. The theory behind the fish kill is that a large school of menhaden swam behind the north end of the outer island and ran into trouble. “We are still with the theory that those fish went up a small creek and were trapped, and then suffocated,” Carpenter said. “When the tide dropped out, they couldn’t breathe because they used up all the oxygen.”

“It’s not common for this to happen, but we have seen it happen in the past,” Carpenter said. “But never with this many fish.”

Carpenter said he does not think the incident has anything to do with sonar testing offshore. “This is different from what they think causes those dolphin strandings,” he said.

However, several small sharks were also found among the menhaden. “I don’t know what the deal is with that,” Carpenter said. “They may have been there and got caught up with the low oxygen, or they may have been trying to feed on them or what might have been the situation there.” The fish are emitting a very strong odor where they are stuck near the north end. “The good thing is, it isn’t summertime,” Carpenter said. “They do disperse pretty quickly, especially along the ocean.”

However, the fish on the north end are having a harder time dissipating. “Those fish are going to be there awhile,” Carpenter said. “The ocean tends to disperse them pretty quickly. Those ones in the creek, which is where we think the kill occurred, are going to be harder to get rid of.”

“The beachside is cleaning itself up very well,” Simpson echoed. “That being said, if you drive up around Shell Island and go to the circle there, in the inlet, you will see thousands and thousands of fish there, and it’s not cleaning itself out.”

The north end of the beach is not town property, Simpson added, and the inlet is controlled by the N.C. Division of Coastal Management. Simpson said he had contacted those parties, with little success.

“After numerous discussions with those offices, we are not getting any support from them other than obtaining permits,” he said. “It’s been very frustrating.”

However, New Hanover County assistant county manager Dave Weaver visited the beach Wednesday afternoon to assess the situation.

“Hopefully, the county will be able to work with us on this,” Simpson said, adding that he hoped the problem would be resolved quickly.

But, late Wednesday afternoon, Simpson said he was tired of the bureaucracy and formulated a plan for town staff to begin cleanup.

“We are going to go at it alone,” he said, after not obtaining additional help from the county or state. Members of public works, the fire department and the parks department were expected to begin cleanup on the north end by the inlet on Thursday morning. “Something had to be done, so we are handling it ourselves,” Simpson said, adding that they would obtain necessary permits from CAMA. Both Carpenter and Simpson say they hope this incident is a one-time occurrence.

“I think it’s pretty much of a freak-type event,” Carpenter said. “We certainly would be concerned if this started happening again. Then we would certainly suspect something other than them being trapped.”