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A Fish Kill Spotted In Biscayne Bay May Be Spreading Through Miami

Dead fish were spotted near the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station two days after a fish kill was first reported in Biscayne Bay near Morningside Park.
Christopher Boykin
Pelican Harbor Seabird Station
Dead fish were spotted near the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station two days after a fish kill was first reported in Biscayne Bay near Morningside Park.

A fish kill first spotted by swimmers off Morningside Park on Monday may be spreading, with new reports from Pelican Harbor to the north and south to Virginia Key.

A fish kill in the Tuttle Basin at the north end of Biscayne Bay first spotted on Monday appears to be spreading.

Dead fish were spotted as far south as Virginia Key, said Miami Waterkeeper Executive Director Rachel Silverstein. And at the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station off the 79th Street Causeway, dozens of struggling rays and pufferfish hugged the shore where waves pulled more oxygen into the water.

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“Once you start getting animals that are this large affected by low dissolved oxygen conditions, you're really in bad shape as a water body and as an environment,” said Silverstein. “So this is really potentially looking like it's an unfolding emergency.”

A station board member first reported a smell to director Christopher Boykin about mid-morning. When he arrived to investigate, Boykin said he found hundreds of Atlantic stingrays and checkered puffer fish in the shallow water near shore.

“The checkered puffers were kind of gasping for air,” he said. I was really grateful that they weren't dead, as many fish currently are in Biscayne Bay.”

Atlantic stingrays photographed off Pelican Harbor Seabird Station
Courtesy of Christopher Boykin
Atlantic stingrays photographed off Pelican Harbor Seabird Station

Miami-Dade’s Division of Environmental Resources Management and state wildlife officials are investigating the kill. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is also monitoring water with samplers that check water every 15 minutes, Silverstein said.

In a statement Wednesday, DERM said oxygen levels remain low in water is likely killing some fish and causing others, like the rays, to hug the shore in search of water with more oxygen. The agency is also beginning its regular seagrass monitoring in the Tuttle Basin Monday, which may detect any changes or broader shifts.

But environmental scientists say the conditions are likely driven by more chronic issues like stormwater, fertilizer and septic tanks polluting the bay.

“The bay is such a large body of water with three very distinct regions that have their own set of distinct contributors to their particular problems,” said Ana Zangroniz, the University of Florida’s Sea Grant agent for Miami-Dade County.

At the north end, pollution from canals and rivers like the Little River and runoff from dense neighborhoods around the bay dump phosphorus into the bay. In the central bay, off Coral Gables, leaky septic tanks have been blamed for fueling algae. And in the south bay, she said, agriculture and pollution from the Turkey Point cooling canals cause problems.

“It's likely a combination of all of those things. And as we continue to have record breaking temperatures and shifts in our weather patterns, I think it's very likely that we might see more of these types of events,” she said.

Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the bay was in danger of shifting away from seagrass meadows and clear blue water to a bay dominated by macro algae and nutrient-rich green water. Silverstein said she worries the fish-kill may be a turning point.

We are seeing Biscayne Bay die before our eyes right now,” she said. “We’ve got to change course to save the bay at this point.”

Florida International University also sent a team to collect samples and investigate. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is also examining water samples for evidence of harmful algal blooms, said spokeswoman Michelle Kerr. They hope to have results by Thursday.

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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