Fish washed ashore around the Gulf State Park pier earlier this week.
Fish washed ashore around the Gulf State Park pier earlier this week.

By John Mullen

July 13, 2018 – Orange Beach, AL (OBA®) – A placid Gulf and hot conditions have combined to create a fish die-off of a species of baitfish that gathers around the Gulf State Park Pier.

“It’s just your typical dog days of summer,” Orange Beach Director of Coastal Resources Phillip West said. “Species like LYs or some call them pogies like to congregate around structures and suck up all the oxygen and perish. It’s typical of the conditions and the species. Some years we don’t have the heat or the stable conditions that create this lack of oxygen in the water because of the seas. Right now we are in that phase again.”

LYs like this have been dying under the state park pier.
These LYs are dying under the pier.

Longtime pier fisherman and semi-retired fishing guide David Thornton said the right combination of environmental factors caused the recent die off.

“The meteorological condition of calm wind, calm water and clear skies can cause the water around the pier to heat up even more,” Thornton said. “The other day it was like a perfect storm of a situation. We had this huge die off overnight and all these fish started floating up to the surface. Just about daylight, a light breeze picked up out of the south onshore. It pushed all these bloated fish up on the shoreline. It was like a ring around the tub on the beach on either side of the pier where all these dead fish floated up.”

Phillip West

So far, the dead baitfish only showed up at the state pier but West said he wouldn’t be surprised to see them at the Four Seasons pier on the east side of the Cotton Bayou Beach Access.

“I would expect that to happen,” West said. “But that’s not been reported to me from our folks. We have shoreline crews on the cleanup daily and we also have crews on the beach, beach ambassadors and clean-sweep crews.”

Those same conditions, Thornton said, help lead to the famous jubilees experienced on the Eastern Shore. One occurred on the morning of July 12. Many times, shrimp, crab, flounder and a variety of deeper water fish head for the shallows along the Eastern Shore bringing crowds of people to reap the seafood bounty.
 
“A jubilee takes place when a wedge of hypoxic water presses all the way up the shoreline, moved along by an incoming tide,” Thornton said. “The offshore breeze accentuates the phenomenon by pushing the lighter, fresher, more oxygenated water away from the shore. So that is a totally different mechanism in play, and rarely do the fish actually die unless they get gigged.”
 

On the current fish die-off happening at the pier, West says he doesn’t expect it to involve other species of fish or marine life.

“Most other schooling species are a little tougher and move more,” West said. “The LYs might get in there and stay in a tight school around the structure for days but your other schooling fish like Spanish, bonito and even ladyfish they’re going to move about so much more. They’re not going to confine themselves and they’re not going to create their own problem.”

If other species start dying off and washing ashore it could mean a bigger problem, West said.

“I wouldn’t expect to see other species from this,” West said. “If we started seeing catfish and skates and rays and other things then I would suspect we may have almost a jubilee phenomenon at the bottom where the bottom strata of water is depleted of oxygen. It’s another seasonal occurrence.

“It’s to a pretty limited species. If we started seeing other species showing up in a die off then we’re talking brown tide, red tide type stuff. These LYs, they’re pretty fragile anyway. They’re a forage fish and that’s why they are around the structure. They forage around it but they also have cover from their predators.”

Thornton said this was not a fish kill or manmade cause for the fish to be dying but part of life for Gulf animals.

“Some folks were getting upset like it was unnatural and like it was a “fish kill” but it’s nothing that we haven’t seen practically every summer since I been fishing down there since the early 1970s,” Thornton said. “There’s billions of them out there and thousands are dying off.”