NYC sewage overflow kills thousands of menhaden fish

(Riverkeeper, NYC) Riverkeeper captured stark evidence of the environmental toll of combined sewage overflows from New York City Wednesday morning, as Capt. John Lipscomb sampled water quality in the East River and its tributaries with CUNY Queens College.

Flushing Bay was a milky, murky blue-green color – and Flushing Creek was filled with thousands of dead menhaden.

Menhaden are saltwater herring that are also known as bunker, and have been celebrated as “the most important fish in the sea,” because they are an essential food sources for so many other creatures that live in New York Harbor, Long Island Sound and along the Atlantic Coast. That includes humpback whales, which have been repeatedly observed feeding on menhaden in and around New York Harbor.

Why did these menhaden die? New York City’s sewers.

When it rains, the city’s combined sewers dump millions of gallons of sewage and streetwater into Flushing Creek. There are hundreds of discharge points around New York City, but the effects in Flushing Creek offer a particularly stark example of the consequences from dumping massive pulses of pollution into the water every time a storm rolls through. The pollutant load includes pathogens associated with raw sewage, along with pharmaceuticals and other household chemicals; heavy metals, salts and oils from the street; and loads of plastic, cigarette butts and other trash. The killer of these fish though was likely nutrients, which led to a bloom of algae; when the algae died off, bacteria consumed the dead algae and depleted the oxygen in the water.

In Flushing Creek, as part of expanded dissolved oxygen monitoring with CUNY Queens College, we measured almost zero oxygen Wednesday.

“It’s horrific to see these fish with their gaping mouths at the surface of the water. They all suffocated. It just makes me furious,” said Capt. John Lipscomb.

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