OCEAN CITY — The hundreds of dead fish that washed up on the beach from Ocean City to Lewes last weekend were likely dumped by a commercial fishing vessel and did not perish in the ocean because of some water quality issue, state environmental officials said this week.
Last Saturday, officials in Delaware resort towns started receiving complaints about thousands of dead fish in the ocean and washing up on the beaches from Cape Henlopen to Rehoboth and from Bethany to Fenwick Island. By Sunday afternoon, the massive swath of dead fish, later determined to be fairly large Atlantic menhaden, began to turn up in the waters and on the beaches in Ocean City.
The Coast Guard estimated about 100,000 dead menhaden washed up on resort beaches from Ocean City to Cape Henlopen. The fish, which are targeted commercially in the open ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, were likely dumped accidentally from a commercial fishing vessel off the coast, although the investigation is ongoing.
The menhaden were badly decomposed, suggesting they had been in the water for several days, and they had their heads removed, according to Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) spokesperson Dawn Stoltzfus.
MDE officials were in Ocean City on Monday to examine the dead fish, which had been cleared from the beach by Ocean City Public Works crews. Stoltzfus said man-made, and not natural, causes were likely responsible for the massive fish kill.
“The fish appeared to have been dead for at least a week,” she said. “It looks like the wind pushed them ashore. They are highly decomposed and many are missing heads. This is consistent with a commercial fishing vessel. The fish kill may have originated in Delaware Bay and not in Maryland waters.
Stoltzfus said nothing had been ruled out, but it appears the massive fish kill had anything to do with natural causes.
“At this point, the cause is unknown, but it does not appear to be related to water quality,” she said. “The water quality appears fine. There are many other healthy species of fish in the area that are unaffected. This appears to have been limited to menhaden.”
Whatever caused thousands of fish to wash up on the beach in Ocean City was likely limited to last weekend’s incident, according to Stoltzfus.
“The city has cleaned up most of the dead fish and the event appears to be over,” she said. “We are not seeing any new dead fish.”