Low oxygen levels blamed in Weems Creek fish kill

About 15,000 perch, alewives, rockfish perish

Joshua McKerrow - The Capital Two of the estimated 15,000 dead fish that covered Weems creek this morning. The kill started yesterday and state officials are blaming it on low oxygen caused by an algae bloom.
By E.B. FURGURSON III, Staff Writer A fish kill state officials believe was caused by low oxygen left about 15,000 perch and other species floating on Weems Creek in Annapolis this morning. The kill was reported yesterday and Maryland Department of the Environment officials started testing the creek in the afternoon.

They found low oxygen levels, usually the result of decomposing algae.

"We saw oxygen reading of .54 parts per million at the beginning of the kill yesterday," said Robert Ballinger, spokesman for MDE.

This morning, he reported oxygen levels had increased to readings of 2.9 ppm.

"That is near normal," he said. "We think the fish kill has ended."

He said samples of the water and fish have been gathered and sent off for further testing.

Clumps of dead fish, 10 or 20 at a time, floated by the Ridgely Avenue drawbridge.

Upstream of the Rowe Boulevard bridge, about a quarter-mile from Ridgely, thousands more could be seen - yellow perch, white perch, alewives, even rockfish were dead.

"First time I have seen something like this," said Rick Russell, who lives along Ridgely Avenue, as he peered below at the destruction. "I've lived on or near the creek all my life."

Jesse Cunitz, who has lived on the creek right next to the Ridgely bridge for about three years, couldn't believe it.

"This is a disaster, it's horrible," he said as he noticed the huge numbers of fish upstream above Rowe Boulevard.

He said he had seen some fish floating yesterday morning, but not in the numbers he witnessed this morning. Others saw some of the fish last night.

Weems Creek has been sullied by massive development of the Annapolis mall, Anne Arundel Medical Center and apartment complexes, plus the expansion of Route 50, over the years. It feeds into the Severn River just above the West Annapolis peninsula and the Naval Academy.

Severn Riverkeeper Fred Kelly was not aware of the kill until this morning.

He suspects the culprit is a sudden onset of low oxygen levels in the creek and was setting out to take readings at the scene this morning.

"I think the fish get caught in the creek at night when the bacteria begin eating algae that falls to the bottom," he said. "That depletes the oxygen quickly."

"Over the years scientists have not been able to identify a bacteria or disease causing these kills, so I think it has to be a sudden low oxygen event."

Evan Balaga, president of the Weems Creek Conservancy, lives on a hill above the creek. He thought what he saw on top of the water was leaves or petals from magnolia blossoms.

"Oh my God, those are fish!," he said when told of the kill by telephone. "Holy cow!"

He thinks the heavy rains last night flushed chemicals and heated water into the creek. "You have low oxygen levels that stress the fish, and then you get a deluge of chemicals and heated water off parking lots and rooftops. It's well known what that can do."

Others along the creek reported a sheen of oil on the surface of the creek.

"The day before yesterday I saw oil," said Faith Goldstein, Mr. Cunitz's wife. She was fishing with a grandchild in the creek when she saw it.

"You throw in a line and the lure and you would see a trail of oil," she said.

Mr. Cunitz noticed crews loading supplies and fuel from the Ridgely bridge for work on the Route 50 bridge up the Severn River.

"After they loaded fuel yesterday, I could see a sheen of oil. There were dead fish and more oil yesterday," he said looking out at the creek where blotches of oil were visible.

Jim Gibbons, a West Annapolis resident who has lived along the creek all his life, said he has never seen anything like this.

"I have seen a few fish here and there. But this goes all the way up to the mouth of the creek."

He thinks it strange that he has not seen any algae blooms this year that might have contributed to the kill.

He attributes the sheen on the creek to the dead fish. "It looks like they have been dead about 20 hours," he said early this morning.

Mr. Ballinger, though, is pretty sure algae was the culprit.

"We are looking at karlodinium, that is a toxic chemical from the algae," he said. "We don't believe it was oil spills or leaks at this stage.

But we are still testing and monitoring the situation."

Note: The print edition of this story listed an estimate of 5,000 fish as being dead. That estimate has since been revised to 15,000.


(Revised June 2007)