Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Fish Die-Off Update: COA meets with NJDEP officials

For background information on the ongoing menhaden die-off in the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers, see COA's blog post from April 2, 2021.

In response to a letter COA sent to Commissioners of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and NJ Department of Health (NJDOH) on April 16, 2021.

NJDEP responded the next day to set up a meeting on April 19, 2021. NJDEP assembled all the key program top level directors and lead staff for the discussion. Here are some updates from the meeting:

  • NJDEP confirmed fish bacteria Vibrio anguillarum as the cause for this menhaden (aka bunker) die-off.
  • NJDEP has been monitoring these die-offs for years, but this is the most severe mortality event in recent memory. This on-going event is also particularly notable because it is caused by a bacterial infection and occurred in colder months (fall/winter), which is atypical.
  • This bacteria, V. anguillarum, lives in salwater naturally. At this time, the die-off appears to be limited to menhaden, thought it is unclear why, or if other species could be affected. NJDEP suggested that menhaden may be more susceptible due to their schooling pattern of large numbers, in addition to being abundant. Literature suggests that this bacteria can affect other types of fish also.
  • NJDEP is conducting research to determine why this bacterial outbreak is so severe, as there is currently no documented cause. They are also in communication with other state and federal agencies about similar incidents.

  • NJDEP is considering developing a monitoring plan.  COA recommended and discussed year-round and in-water continuous monitoring in the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers to assess oxygen, temperature, salinity and other basic conditions.  After the meeting, NJDEP confirmed the deployment of a continuous monitoring buoy in the Navesink River off Blossom Cove (east of the Red Bank Rt. 35 Bridge)  to collect information that may be useful in determining causes for future die-offs.
  • While there seems to be no state plan to collect and remove dead fish, COA recommended NJDEP consider deploying skimmer boats to collect fish during high tides to reduce the wash-ups.  These boats have been used in the harbor area to scoop up garbage slicks before they spread out to sea or onto beaches.  They have shallow drafts and are used in many harbors.
  • As NJDEP continues to track the menhaden, they appreciate additional reports from citizens. In addition to reports on dead menhaden, they also welcome citizen observations on other species that are found dead or exhibiting sick/spinning behaviors. To share your observations with COA, please submit reports through the Two Rivers Water Quality Reporting Form. Reports submitted through this form will be shared with NJDEP.
  • NJDEP recommends citizens avoid contact with the fish. NJDEP officials described that while this is a fish-specific bacteria, it is opportunistic, and if someone has a suppressed immune system or has an open cut or wound exposure, they could be at risk.
  • NJDEP plans to post answers to Frequently Asked Questions on the agency website to inform the public soon. Their recent statement from April 16, 2021 can be viewed here.

We applaud and appreciate the swift and detailed briefing from the NJDEP and will continue to follow-up and provide input.

However, COA continues to urge that the NJDEP and NJDOH host a joint virtual public forum to update citizens and provide a means for questions and answers. COA has also reached out to Senator Vin Gopal, who is working to address the problem.

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