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Thousands of dead fish lined private beaches Thursday along Lighthouse Road, the state highway that leads to Piney Point Lighthouse.

Residents and a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of the Environment speculated that the fish kill could have been caused by low oxygen in the water and high temperatures, a condition sometimes referred to as a red tide.

The fish are mostly alewives, a type used for crab bait, but also include rockfish.

Red tides are caused by algae blooms, when an abundance of nutrients feeds large masses of algae, which in turn deplete water of oxygen. When oxygen levels reach a certain low, fish and other sea life die, though often fish will be able to swim away from the area of low oxygen.

“It’s been bad for the last two weeks,” waterman Craig Kelley of Ridge said.

He said that crabs are showing up dead in pots after sitting overnight, and that fish are dying in the water and when they are caught in pound nets along the shores.

“I’ve seen it happen a lot,” he said.

When fish die like that, Kelley said, they first sink to the bottom where they stay for a few days. As they bloat the fish rise and begin to float. Depending on the wind and tides they can wash up on shore, he said.

Dead, rotting fish are useless as bait, he added.

There are crab pots scattered throughout the river off the shoreline in Piney Point and three large pound nets used for catching fish are nearby.

According to one woman visiting friends at Piney Point, more than a mile-long stretch of beach along Lighthouse Road was littered with dead fish between 6 inches and a foot long.

“There are just dead fish everywhere,” she said.

Roman Pausch of Tall Timbers was visiting his parents who live along Lighthouse Road.

“This is more than usual,” he said Thursday morning while taking in the scene. “This seems like an awful lot.”

He speculated that it could be dead fish dumped from pound nets nearby, but that it seemed like too many fish for even that.

“It could be natural causes” from a lack of oxygen and excessive heat, he said.

Bobby Coontz, hotel supervisor at the Island Inn and Suites on nearby St. George Island, said Thursday morning that there were “quite a few” dead fish floating up against the riprap outside of the establishment.

One Piney Point resident said about four days earlier there was a red tide in the area and blue crabs crawled up on the beach due to low oxygen levels in the water.

Waterman Bobby Lumpkins fishes one of three pound nets in the area.

“A lot of red water in a lot of places, especially with all this hot weather,” he said when speculating on the cause of the massive amount of dead fish on shore.

He said he heard from one crabber that earlier this week he had caught four bushels of dead crabs, with just one live one among them.

He said of the red tide, “It happens every year, two or three times a year.”

The Maryland Department of the Environment urges residents to call its fish kill hotline when remains are found.

Fish kills also result from a combination of natural and human induced stresses in the environment, according to MDE. Crowding, spawning stress, reduced food abundance, excessive temperatures or sudden temperature change and other factors can result in fish kills.

In addition to low oxygen levels caused by sewage or excessive algae, fish kills can result from toxic substances entering a waterway, according to the state agency.

The Piney Point fish kill “is likely related to the conditions this week throughout the bay watershed area,” Jay Apperson, spokesperson for MDE, said Thursday.

MDE planned to send personnel to Piney Point to investigate Thursday, Apperson said. A total of 70 fish kills were reported in 2011 to MDE. This was below the long term average of 115.

Fifty of the 70 reports were considered significant enough to warrant on-site investigations. There were approximately 117,362 fish deaths recorded, according to the state agency.

The largest kill occurred June 4 last year in the Atlantic Ocean off Ocean City where approximately 100,000 adult Atlantic Menhaden washed ashore. According to MDE, an investigation revealed that the fish “were apparently discarded, or possibly the result of mishap, from a commercial fishing operation.”

jyeatman@somdnews.com

To report incidents

Fish kills can be reported by calling the Maryland Department of the Environment hotline at 1-877-224-7229.