Responding to the Fish Kill(s)

by Meteorologist Jeff Schultz

If we look at the ecosystem as a whole, from local, to regional, to global levels, we can identify several contributing factors to the November 14, 2016 Shinnecock Canal fish-kill.

Let's start locally. Most experts agree that a drop in dissolved oxygen levels likely suffocated the fish. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) found low oxygen to be the main factor in the Peconic Estuary mass kills of September 1999, August 2000, May 2008, May 2009, May 16th & 27th 2015 and June 2015. 

What causes low oxygen? Warmer water temperatures, algal blooms, nitrogen pollution, storm-water runoff and mucky organic sediment are the usual culprits. The previous fish-kills occurred during the warm months of May through September. November 2016 follows one of the warmest years on record, but it remains to be seen if temperature played a role. We are eager to see results from water samples and fish autopsies by DEC and Stony Brook University scientists.

One big difference between 2016 and previous events is the location. Earlier fish kills occurred in natural waterways, including Meetinghouse Creek, Terry’s Creek, Sawmill Creek and the Peconic River. The Shinnecock Canal is a man-made waterway. It is enclosed by hardened surfaces (bulkhead, canal locks, marinas, roadways, parking lots, etc.), and lacks native plants, a wetland coastline and marine plantscapes. 

The next link in our ecosystem includes predators like whales and dolphins, which chase bunker from the ocean into the bays, and bluefish and striped bass which can chase large schools into enclosed waterways. These are natural occurrences. Bunker, bluefish & striped bass populations are affected, however, by man-made regulations on fishing quotas. Humans are predators too, but our regulations are often out of sync with natural fluctuations. 

Further afield in our ecosystem, we can look at Atlantic Ocean currents, which are being affected by Global Climate Change. The recent and rapid increase of melting freshwater in Greenland is impacting the temperature and salinity of the North Atlantic Ocean, slowing down the Gulf Stream current. A slower Gulf Stream means warmer water and higher sea levels for Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states, including our local waterways. In response, cod populations have plunged, lobster populations have swelled, and populations of other sea life have advanced or retreated. The ecosystem is undergoing dramatic change.

Finally, on a global level, Greenhouse Gas Emissions from agriculture, construction, energy production and transportation systems has thickened the "Earth's blanket", trapping heat and warming the atmosphere and oceans. While this is happening on a global scale, we can close the circle and see it happening on our local scale. Yes, each of us may contribute a seemingly small amount, but collectively, the impact of densely populated communities on local, regional and global ecosystems is immense.

What can we do to prevent future mass kills? We can start by rethinking our local culture. The Ecological Culture Initiative is a community based non-profit that develops agro-ecology and permaculture design programming as well as design-build field projects in collaboration with community groups and local government. We aim to provide a working model for regenerative land use, low impact design, sustainable living, and the development of an ecologically-responsible neighborhood. 

Please join our effort by purchasing tickets for our film screening of SEED at the Hampton Bays movie theater on January 19th, subscribing to our email newsletter, following us on Facebook and Twitter, visiting our new website, and attending our lecture / workshop series beginning 2017.

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We are grateful to Photographer Carolyn Munaco for these Shinnecock Canal fish kill photos. Visit her Instagram page to see more photos and video.

Shinnecock Canal Fish Kill 3 by Carolyn Munaco.jpg

A video posted by Munaco Art (@munacoart) on