County Calls for Federal Help; Riverhead Postpones Cardboard Boat Race After Health Advisory Over Dead Fish

dead bunker
The Suffolk County Health Department is asking people to stay away from badly decomposing fish.

This past weekend, for the third time this spring, thousands of dead bunker fish washed up dead again on the shores of the Peconic River, prompting the Suffolk County Health Department to issue a warning against recreating near the dead and decomposing fish.

Though Riverhead hired contractors earlier this week to clean up the dead fish, there are still fish floating in the water and washed up on the shore throughout the Peconic River, which prompted the town to pull the plug on the sixth annual Great Riverhead Cardboard Boat Race, which was originally scheduled for next Sunday, June 28.

The race, whose participants often end up in the muddy river as their boats become waterlogged, has been rescheduled for Aug. 23.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is also expected to call on the federal government for assistance to help the region with the nitrogen pollution crisis in a press conference at the Peconic River at noon today. The Peconic Estuary is one of 28 federally designated estuaries of national significance by the Environmental Protection Agency. Excess levels of nitrogen are believed to be a significant factor in the algae blooms that lead to the fish deaths.

Another smaller menhaden kill occurred in the Peconic River over this weekend. | LICCRA graphic
Another smaller menhaden kill occurred in the Peconic River over last weekend. | LICCRA graphic

The third fish kill was reported over this past weekend at the mouth of the Peconic Estuary, after a severe die-off of menhaden (a.k.a. bunker) there at the end of May. The Long Island Coastal Conservation Research Alliance reported Monday that low nighttime oxygen levels due to blooming algae again killed a large number of fish over the weekend of June 13 and 14.

The Suffolk County Health Department issued several guidelines June 18 for recreating near the Peconic River in the wake of the fish kills there over the past several weeks. They asked swimmers to swim only at regulated bathing beaches, whose status can be checked online here:

They also asked boaters to avoid water near the dead fish and to not handle or eat fish that are dead, dying, acting abnormal or seem sick. They urged fishermen who catch live fish in the area to cook them thoroughly due to the possibility that bacteria, parasites and other microorganisms that feed on the dead fish might also be present in living fish nearby.

Riverhead decided the next day to postpone the race.

Councilman George Gabrielsen, the town board liaison for the cardboard boat race, said he believes the race will be far more enjoyable for spectators in August, after this crisis has passed.

“I am quite proud of how the boat race has grown over the last several years and the large crowds of spectators and participants that it draws,’ he said in a statement Friday. “The experience and overall enjoyment of entrants and the hundreds who come to downtown to cheer them on was first and foremost on our minds when we made the decision to move the event to late August.”

“The bunker fish kill could not have been planned for and we are doing our best along with the Town of Southampton to quickly remedy the situation,” said Town Supervisor Sean Walter. “We are very confident that the situation will greatly improve well in advance of the Aug. 23 rescheduled race and hope to attract an even larger and more enthusiastic crowd than we welcomed in the last few years.”

More information on the race is online here.


Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at

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