Depending on which way the wind is blowing when you've been in the Dunkirk harbor area this spring, you may have noticed a distinctly distasteful smell.
Don Einhouse is a warm water species biologist for the Department of Environmental Conserv-ation and is the senior biologist at the Lake Erie Fisheries unit located on Point Drive North in Dunkirk. He said his take on the cause was fish.
"There's an awful lot of dying and dead gizzard shad floating around. The water is warm enough now they're decaying more rapidly and they are emitting an odor," he explained. "The reason we're experiencing it more this year than maybe an average year, we had an especially hard winter and gizzard shad are a species that are living at the northern limit of their range and they are right at a tenuous position as far as their survival in very cold water.
OBSERVER Photo by Gib Snyder
Rotting fish are the predominant reason for the odor emanating from the Dunkirk harborfront.
"Dunkirk harbor provides just a bit of thermal refuge because of the power plant and the warm-water discharge, so we get an abnormally large number of gizzard shad in Dunkirk harbor, especially in winters like this. But nevertheless, because it was a long, hard winter, a lot of the shad die."
Einhouse added a sample of the dead fish were sent to the Cornell fish pathology laboratory, which has a contract with the DEC. The lab results showed a good percentage of the fish had a disease, viral hemmoraghic pepsystemia.
"It's been in the Great Lakes for a few years. It doesn't always cause fish kills and we can't really say for certain whether this virus caused this kill, or the fish were weakened so they were more susceptible to the virus," Einhouse added. "We've seen gizzard shad kills before, especially after winters like this. Because there's a lot of them around dying and the weather's warmer now, that's what causing the smell."
Not only the gizzard shad suffered this winter. A large number of waterfowl suffered starvation due to the lake being ice-covered, and along with the dying fish, attracted a large number of eagles that area residents turned out to view.
As for getting rid of the dead gizzard shad, Einhouse said it was a matter of time.
"I think they will just continue to decay and decline and get swept away; winds, waves, outflows of streams and so forth," he explained. "We have had bad gizzard shad die-offs before. This is a notable one, I'll grant you that, but eventually they dissipate without any overt action on anybody's part.
"In due time it sort of takes care of itself."
In the meantime check the wind direction if you're sensitive to the smell and thinking about going to the harborfront.
Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org