MONMOUTH COUNTY – Since March, many residents were finding thousands of dead fish floating and washing up on shorelines in creeks and rivers, specifically the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers.
The New Jersey Department Environmental Protection (NJDEP) had confirmed that the ongoing menhaden fish die-off is due to a fish-specific vibrio bacterial infection, specifically Vibrio anguillarum.
Clean Ocean Action (COA) reached out to the NJDEP to expresses residents’ concerns and questions about whether it’s safe the swim or fish, and what to do with all the dead fish. As a result, the Rally for the Two Rivers, an alliance formed by the COA, hosted a webinar meeting where officials further explained the incident and discussed the aftermath of the fish kill.
State Senator Vin Gopal expressed at the virtual meeting how towns spent thousands of dollars cleaning up the dead fish, and is trying to use state and federal money to reimburse these towns.
“I have reached out to all the towns in the two-river area,” Gopal said. “I’ve spoken to a number of them. I have three towns right now have expressed an interest in submitting reimbursements.”
Gopal’s plan is to acquire money from the state budget and the American Recovery Act. The Act gives local governments $130 billion to help with financial recovery from the pandemic. Gopal said that the fish cleanup cost some towns around $40,000.
“Some of the neighborhoods I toured in my district … the quality of life was so bad,” Gopal said. “It wasn’t just the fish at that point, it was the bugs and everything else. It was really bad. I flipped over one fish and thousands of maggots were all over it. This is on people’s backyards.”
Oceanport Mayor Jay Coffey explained how the town had to hire a contractor where the staff went out in hazmat suits on a boat and removed fish off the shorelines because of the overwhelming number of dead fish.
“We took close to 6,000 pounds of fish off the shoreline. We hit about 80 percent of our riverfront properties,” Coffey said. “We’re still faced with a fly problem, that might carry over for a couple weeks. As Senator Gopal said, the maggot infestation was remarkable. The men that were doing this cleanup said the fish weighed a lot more than they normally would have, because of some of the maggots. We have flies that are the size of quarters.”
NJDEP officials connected the dead fish to a bacteria outbreak of Vibrio anguillarum. Scientists and researchers believe that environmental stress, such as changes in water temperature or salinity, could have been a contributing factor to why so many fish were killed.
Fish pathologist Jan Lovy, who works with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, assured residents that the bacteria does not cause illness in humans. Although, he emphasized that those removing the fish should wear gloves and boots and avoid touching the infected bunker.
Assistant commissioner of the NJDEP and head of the department’s Division of Fish and Wildlife Ray Bukowski said that the fish and crustaceans that feed on menhaden are not in danger from the bacteria outbreak.
It is safe for humans to eat the fish that eat the menhaden if completely cooked, Bob Schuster, bureau chief of the department’s Marine Water Monitoring program said.
According to researchers, this isn’t the first massive die off of bunker fish in the area. There have been reports of fish dying in the Delaware Bay and also around Long Island.
If this were to occur again in the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers, someone will have to coordinate the cleanup, Gopal said. Coffey said he supports Gopal’s efforts into crafting a plan for the future.
Those who have further questions about the menhaden, can visit: state.nj.us/dep/fgw/news/2021/menhaden_update2_faqs.htm.