Fish kills spread to Inner Harbor, Fort McHenry

Dead fish washed up on Inner Harbor lower promenade near Maryland Science Center. (Adam Lindquist, Waterfront Partnership / May 24, 2012)

The algae blooms fouling Baltimore area waters apparently have claimed more victims, as more dead fish have been spotted floating in the Inner Harbor and washing ashore at Fort McHenry just south of downtown.

Investigators with the Maryland Department of the Environment, who saw upwards of 100,00 dead fish in creeks south of the city Wednesday and hundreds more in Dundalk, confirmed the Inner Harbor die-off today.

MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said the harbor's mahogany colored water fit the same recipe for a fish kill.  He offered no estimate of how many dead fish there were, noting that the city's trash-skimming boats were scooping them up, "but as soon as they go by, there's more." UPDATE: Apperson said Charles Poukish, MDE's chief fish-kill investigator, counted about 165 dead fish in the Inner Harbor, and estimated there were 1,000 in all.

Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the Waterfront Partnership, a nonprofit campaigning to make the harbor fishable and swimmable by 2020, first alerted me last night that dead fish were popping up in Fells Point and elsewhere in the Inner Harbor, with the water giving off a strong smell as well.

UPDATE: Adam Lindquist, the partnership's Healthy Harbor campaign coordinator, says he saw maybe a couple hundred dead fish today, but yesterday saw thousands of fish near the surface gasping for air - mostly menhaden and mummichogs. 

Meanwhile, I saw hundreds of dead fish washing up on a small sandy beach by Fort McHenry after a Sun reader, John Hasener, called to say he'd seen a bunch of "small fry" belly up in the water there on Wednesday.  I ran into him at the national monument when I stopped by to check out the situation.

Hasener, a retired state employee, is doubtful that algae are responsible for the fish kill, suggesting instead that dredging going on around the harbor may be responsible. He walks around Fort McHenry every day, he said, and until recently the water was clear.

"A month and a  half ago, you could see 4 1/2 feet down," he said.  It's a murky, mahogany brown now.

Experts, though, say the fish kills are following the classic pattern from algae blooms of this type, which cloud the water, then generate a foul odor and kill off fish as the tiny aquatic plants die and decay.  The decomposing algae consume the oxygen in the water that fish need to breathe, which is why they're often seen thrashing about on the surface during such episodes, trying to escape suffocation.

UPDATE: Water quality sampling by the state Department of Natural Resources, which you can see here, shows dissolved oxygen levels crashing in the water at Masonville Cove, not far from Fort McHenry.  MDE's Apperson reports that dissolved oxygen levels were low in the Inner Harbor as well, almost zero just a meter below water and not much better near the surface.

The mahogany tide stretches from north of Baltimore in the upper Chesapeake Bay to south of the Bay Bridge, according to Catherine Wazniak, who tracks algae blooms for the state Department of Natural Resources. This type of algae commonly appears in the bay, but usually later in the summer and not as thickly as it is now, she said.

UPDATE: It's been three years since the last significant fish kill in the Inner Harbor. The 2009 die-off, also accompanied by a rank-smelling algae bloom, helped spur the Waterfront Partnership and other concerned groups and individuals to push for cleaning up the harbor.

The Healthy Harbor campaign is seeking to enlist city-dwellers and suburbanites alike in cleaning up litter, putting in rain gardens and taking other steps to prevent polluted runoff from streets, parking lots and lawns.

"It's sad to see fish dying from a lack of oxygen," notes the Waterfront Partnership's Lindquist, "but at least it provides an opportunity to educate people about why it's happening and what behaviors they can change to help keep it from happening every year."

For now, though, the situation's not conducive to drawing lots of visitors and tourists to the bay or the Inner Harbor for the Memorial Day holiday weekend and the unofficial kickoff of summer.

Some don't even need to see dead fish to be turned off by the look and smell of the water.  Karen Little from Weehauken, NJ, emailed that she and her husband were thinking about buying a boat berthed at a marina in Canton, but when her husband came to look at the vessel on Tuesday, the water looked "awful." 

Someone at the marina told him the water was that way because of a sewage spill, she said.  The water at Canton has some of the worst bacteria contamination in the harbor, which is widely attributed to polluted runoff from city streets and chronic sewage leaks. 

MDE's Apperson said no sewage overflows or breaks have been reported recently in the vicinity, though there was a 50 million gallon sewage spill outside the harbor on the lower Patapsco.

More likely the rank condition of the water Tuesday stemmed from the same algae bloom that's been proliferating in local waters for the past few weeks. But for Little, learning that the harbor is fouled repeatedly by sewage spills and chronic leaks was enough for she and her husband to rethink their boat-buying plans.

"We are still considering that boat," she wrote, "but if we do buy it, would hustle it out of the area ASAP."