A Commercial Fishing Net Just Dumped 75,000 Dead Fish on Virginia’s Shore

Because the beaches are home to the endangered tiger beetle, cleanup crews can’t use heavy equipment, rakes, or shovels, and have to pick up the fish individually and put them into wheelbarrows.

Oct 15 2015, 3:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Chesapeake Bay Program

Tens of thousands of dead fish washed up on Virginia's Eastern Shore over the weekend after a commercial fishing net ripped. In video footage from DelMarVa Now, the fish—which are menhaden, a form of forage fish—stretch for as far as the eye can see up a sandy beach, deposited unceremoniously along the high water mark in a line. To make matters worse, the beaches are home to endangered tiger beetles and their larvae, which is complicating the cleanup effort, according to the Washington Post.

The approximately 75,000 menhaden washed up on Smith Beach near the Savage Neck Dunes Natural Area Preserve after a net snagged on "an obstruction" on deck while fishermen were hauling it onboard their vessel. The net belonged to Omega Protein, a Houston-based company that harvests 400 million (!!!) menhaden a year in the Atlantic. Menhaden aren't eaten by humans, but are used for bait, fish oil, animal feed, Omega-3 supplements, and other products.

"It's an accident," Omega Protein spokesman Ben Landry told the Washington Post. "You're out on the water, pumping fish into the vessel and the net snags on something and tears."

The company says something like this happens a few times a year, and they were able to track where the fish were likely to turn up on land by monitoring water and weather conditions. Sometimes when a net rips, the fish simply swim away or float out to sea where they become a meal for an opportunistic predator. This time, the fish were already dead when the net tore.

Photo via Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia

Menhaden washed up on a Rhode Island beach in 2003. Photo via Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia

Unfortunately, the currents took them to the tiger beetle's turf. Due to the presence of the beetle and its larvae, Omega Protein's cleanup crews can't use heavy equipment, rakes, or shovels to make the job any easier, and have to pick up the fish individually and put them into wheelbarrows. The fish also washed up in remote areas that are hard to get to. Omega Protein has apologized for the situation and is working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on their cleanup efforts.

The dead fish also ended up on the beaches of Bay Creek in Cape Charles, a gated resort community with a golf course. Bay Creek's chief operating officer told the Washington Post the fish are unsightly.

"When it's warm and they start to decay, they smell. And the flies," he added ominously.