Bunker littered the shore just south of the Montauk Highway bridge.
Bunker littered the shore just south of the Montauk Highway bridge on the morning of the fish kill.

Southampton Town and contracted fishermen have removed more than 170 tons of dead menhaden, known locally as bunker fish, from Shinnecock Bay, in response to a massive fish kill at the lock on the Shinnecock Canal on Nov. 14, but the effort has been hampered in Southampton Village by environmentally sensitive wetlands where many dead fish are still decomposing along Meadow Lane.

Local commercial bunker fishing company C. Well Fish was contracted by the town to assist with clean-up efforts on bay beaches, while the Town Trustees and Parks Department employees helped to clean the fish from marinas, according to a Dec. 5 statement from the town.

As of Monday, “most of the problem areas have been addressed. The massive clean-up efforts and the natural occurrences of wind and tide are creating improving conditions,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “However, Southampton Village still has a significant problem along Meadow Lane. Cleanup efforts in this area are being hampered by environmental constraints where fish have collected in the fragile coastal marshlands.”

In the early days after the fish kill, some of the dead bunker were harvested for bait for the Maine lobster industry. Some were transported to a private composting facility. Most of the remaining fish have been taken to the town’s Jackson Avenue compost facility in Hampton Bays to be turned into compost eventually to be made available to the public.

Private residents who are cleaning their own beaches are allowed to bring the fish collected to the Hampton Bays Transfer Station on Jackson Avenue at no cost.

Initially, most of the dead bunker had accumulated at the mouth of and within the Shinnecock Canal. But, according to the town, outgoing tides and the opening of the canal tidal gates carried the dead bunker into Shinnecock Bay, where some sank and some were washed out through the Shinnecock Inlet. After a few days, decomposing fish from the bay bottom rose to the surface, and winds and currents moved the now foul-smelling fish onto bay beaches and into marinas and coves.

In the early days after the fish kill, the town and the Suffolk County Department of Public Works cycled the Shinnecock Canal lock system more frequently, to draw in oxygenated water and avoid more fish kills on following days, since the population of live bunker was still quite high.

This time of year, massive schools of this bait fish are migrating out to the open ocean, and scientists believe they were likely backed into the locks by predatory bluefish and striped bass overnight before the fish kill, where they likely ran out of oxygen to breathe and were asphyxiated.

Bunker populations have been high in the Peconic Estuary over the past several years due to recent regional restrictions in the menhaden fishery.

The Suffolk County Health Department also issued a notice this weekend urging boaters and fishermen to avoid contact with dead and decaying fish in the area, and to use caution if eating fish caught from waters where there have been large accumulations of dead fish, due to bacteria, viruses or parasites that may have infected living fish.

The health department is urging anyone who insists on eating fish from these waters to cook them thoroughly. They are also advising everyone to wash thoroughly after contact with water in the area, especially if it is cloudy or murky or filled with dead fish.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she 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 editor@eastendbeacon.com

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