This spring, Charlene Knoll and her young son, Grant, have noticed unusually large numbers of dead and dying fish in the Erie Barge Canal, along Old Niagara Falls Boulevard in the Town of Amherst.
“We’ve never seen so many dead fish out there, and it smells really bad,” said Knoll, who has lived across the street from the barge canal for the past six years. “Sometimes you see them up at the surface, trying to swim but just struggling and dying ... I wonder what is causing it.”
In recent weeks, Knoll and some of her neighbors along the bike path have spotted officials of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in boats, taking samples of the dead fish and the very brown canal water.
According to the DEC, Knoll and others are not just imagining that there are many dead fish in Western New York. An unusually high number of fish – mainly of the species known as the gizzard shad – have been dying off in Lake Erie and other local waterways, from Dunkirk to Wilson.
During the months of April and May, DEC officials received many phone calls from people who have found the fish lying on beaches and floating in waterways throughout the region.
“This is a very significant fish die-off. Based on phone calls from citizens to our offices, media reports and from our own observations, this is one of the largest die-offs we’ve had in many years in this area,” said Don Einhouse, a fisheries biologist for the DEC who is based in Dunkirk. “People aren’t just imagining it. Fish are washing up on beaches all along Lake Erie, and they’re dying in the rivers and creeks.”
The vast majority of the dead fish are believed to be gizzard shad, according to Einhouse and other experts.
And based on pathological examinations of the fish conducted at a Cornell University laboratory, DEC officials believe the deaths are mostly weather-related and were not caused by water pollution or any other man-made problem.
Is there any way of estimating how many fish have died?
“Many thousands have died. That’s the best I can do for you,” said Einhouse, a 30-year DEC employee. “It is definitely an unusually high number.”
Although the fish deaths are still under investigation, Einhouse said the DEC strongly believes that the deaths are a result of weather conditions over the past two winters.
Gizzard shad, a member of the herring family that can grow to 10 to 14 inches in length, is not a native species to Western New York. But the gizzard shad has lived in Lake Erie and its tributaries for many decades, government experts said.
“It is a fish that is much more plentiful in the Southern states. Lake Erie is about as far north as you will see them,” Einhouse said.
Generally speaking, gizzard shad thrive in waters that are warmer than normal Lake Erie temperatures. The winter of 2011-2012 was milder than most local winters, and after that winter, the local population of gizzard shad increased. This past winter was much colder than the year before, and DEC officials believe the cold weather caused an abnormal number of gizzard shad deaths.
DEC officials collected some of the dead fish and sent them to Cornell’s pathological laboratory for disease screening.
Those examinations have found no evidence that the fish were killed by chemical contamination of local waterways, Einhouse said.
Asked about reports of dead fish recently spotted in Lake Ontario’s Wilson Harbor, Einhouse said it is likely that some gizzard shad died in that lake, too.
“They probably are gizzard shad, but this is not as big of an issue in Lake Ontario as Lake Erie,” the DEC expert said. “Lake Ontario is a much colder lake than Lake Erie, and as a result, we do not have as many gizzard shad in that lake.”
A certain number of fish die naturally in local waterways each year, but the extent of this year’s fish kill is highly unusual, Einhouse said.
Knoll, the Amherst resident, said an upsetting incident last month involving her mixed-breed dog, Heidi, made her wonder if the fish are dying from chemical contamination.
“About a month ago, I saw Heidi eating one of the dead fish,” Knoll recalled. “Very soon after that, Heidi began gagging and throwing up and she was very listless. I took her to the vet’s office.”
The dog was very ill for several days, and Knoll worried that she would die. “They gave her injections of antibiotics, and she’s doing better now, but she has lost a lot of weight,” Knoll said. “The vet doesn’t know what caused it ... To me, it seems like it was caused by eating that fish.”
A Buffalo News reporter who checked out the Trailway on two occasions last week found no dead fish but encountered a woman from Wheatfield who said she has seen many of them while walking her two dogs on the Trailway this spring.
“My grandson fishes here all the time, and he says he can’t believe all the dead fish,” said the woman, who would not give her name. “The water smells horrible this year, the worst I’ve ever seen. I’ve even seen a lot of dead fish up on this bike path, and that seems really weird to me.”
When asked about the incident involving Knoll’s dog, Einhouse said he has no explanation for it. DEC officials said recent water testing in Amherst has shown no unusual signs of pollution.
When asked about fish being found on the bike path – which Knoll and another neighborhood resident said they too have noticed – Einhouse said he doesn’t have an explanation but said it is possible that animals have picked up some of the fish and dropped them there.
Two local officials of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Kofi Fynn-Aikins and Michael Goehle – said they too are unaware of any unusual pollution in the barge canal or nearby Tonawanda Creek. They concurred with the DEC’s explanation that the fish deaths appear to have been caused by cold temperatures.
“We have noticed that the water” in the barge canal “is pretty muddy. We believe that is caused by runoff from all the recent rainstorms,” Goehle said.
DEC officials ask that anyone in Western New York who sees unusual activity involving dead fish, or poisoning of the environment, contact the agency’s Buffalo office at 851-7010, or (800) TIPP-DEC. Email tips or complaints can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is no doubt that, over the years, many local fish kills have been caused by chemical contamination in the water, according to Brian P. Smith, the program director for the Western New York Citizens Campaign for the Environment. But Smith said he sees no reason to doubt the word of DEC officials regarding the gizzard shad.
“In my experience in other situations involving fish die-offs, the DEC has been forthcoming with the most accurate information they have,” Smith said.