Greenwich Bay hit by huge fish kill

With up to a million fish dead already, officials worry that a season of hot weather and heavy rain may create another kill as early as today.

08:31 AM EDT on Friday, August 22, 2003

Journal Staff Writer

WARWICK -- Tens of thousands of fish -- possibly as many as a million -- died in Greenwich Bay yesterday, starved for oxygen in water that is being choked by pollutant-fed algae, according to state environmental officials.

Arthur Ganz, supervising biologist for the Marine Fisheries division of the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), said this is the worst fish kill he has seen in more than 50 years of living near and working on the bay.

"We have a major anoxia [lack of oxygen] event in Greenwich Bay," he said, explaining that dozens of samples taken yesterday show that there is virtually no oxygen in the bay water. "This is the worst I've ever seen," he said. "The water is this murky, grayish white.


Journal photo / Andrew C. Helman

HIGH TIDE: Hundreds of dead fish litter the water line at Cedar Tree Point, at the mouth of Apponaug Cove and Greenwich Bay, in Warwick. Most of the fish killed by a lack of oxygen caused by an algae "bloom," were menhaden, a bait fish, but also killed were blackfish, eels and blue crabs.

"I call it the color of death."

Officials from DEM and Save the Bay were first alerted to the problem early yesterday morning when they received phone calls from horrified residents in Warwick's Apponaug Cove area, who had woken up to see their shoreline shimmering with dead fish, mostly juvenile menhaden.

John Torgan, spokesman for Save the Bay, said that there were dead fish on the beaches, floating on the water and under the water. There were too many to count, he said, estimating, "tens of thousands, possibly more than a million."

Ganz said the largest slick of dead fish that he saw was about 1.5 miles long and 80 feet wide.

Most of the fish were menhaden, bait fish usually fed upon by larger species, Torgan said, but other marine life killed included blackfish, eels and blue crabs.

As upsetting as the fish kill is, both Ganz and Torgan said that what is even more alarming is what the disaster says about the condition of Greenwich Bay.

It is an undeniable signal, Ganz said, that more steps must be taken to stop all kinds off runoff -- whether it be from septic systems, lawns or roads -- from leaching into the bay and introducing pollutants that upset the ecological balance and cause rapid algae growth.

Torgan explained that a large algae "bloom" will deplete the water of oxygen as the algae "respire" at night using oxygen for the process. The algae further choke the water, when they decay in large quantities and accumulate on the bay bottom.

"What happened today is a red flag," said Ganz. He said that state officials would meet today to discuss what steps will be taken next.

He said there will be further testing of oxygen levels in water north of Greenwich Bay, and he is very concerned that this summer's combination of hot weather and heavy rainstorms has created the circumstances for another fish kill to occur in the area again, possibly today.

Ganz said there is no need to remove the dead fish, mostly 3 to 4 inches long, because the bay will cleanse itself.

Like Ganz, Torgan identified runoff as the main culprit and said the problem would have to be addressed on many levels -- from looking at fertilizer-contaminated water that spills from lawns near the bay to the possible need for mandatory sewer tie-ins for houses near the water.

Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisdian said he was not notified of the situation by the state and was concerned that he received no word from DEM. He said that the city has been working to address problems that threaten the bay, including an ongoing $130-million project that is extending sewer mains into many coastal neighborhoods.

While the root problem is runoff polluting the bay, both Ganz and Torgan said that this summer provided the exact circumstances needed to bring the situation to a head.

Describing it as a "perfect storm" scenario, Torgan said this season's heavy rains caused a lot of runoff water to seep into the bay, where it acted "like a fertilizer" for plant life such as algae.

He said there is a large algae bloom extending from Providence south to Newport, but until yesterday no large-scale fish kills had been reported. The recipe for disaster was perfect in Greenwich Bay, which is very shallow in parts and has little wave action to help cleanse the water.

Yesterday morning, there was very little wind, it was hot, and when the sun came up, the oxygen level in the water probably dropped so quickly that smaller fish, such as the juvenile menhaden, were not able to escape, Torgan said.

He said that larger fish were apparently able to swim farther out to cleaner waters.

Jack Early, a member of Defenders of Greenwich Bay, said that people in the Cedar Tree Point area are horrified by the occurrence and that many gathered at the water's edge yesterday, where they cried at the sight of all the dead fish.

"We know this is a significant [ecological] event," Early said. "This is something we've been screaming about for years. The people are weeping and the bay is weeping -- she's weeping her dead."

Healthy oxygen levels in the bay water would be between 5 and 9 milligrams per liter, Torgan said.

Ganz said that many of the readings showed the oxygen at less than 1 milligram.

"I've seen anoxia in little coves, but nothing ever as vast as this," Ganz said. "There is too much water in the bay for this to be happening.

"I've been a hands-on biologist for a long time, and this is a wake-up call that we need to do all the things that we have been talking about for a long time.

"Unfortunately, you have to have an event like this for people to realize how fragile this environment is."