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Home > BART > Fish Kills


Bay Line: 222-8888
(May 15 to Oct. 15)

Fish Kills

Death is, of course, as natural as life, but a "fish kill" is extraordinary. Casualties pile up on the surface or floor of the sea, or they wash ashore. The sight and smell are awful.

But the consequences may not be as severe as they seem. Depending on the species and time of year, hundreds or even many thousands of casualties can be a miniscule portion of the population, and survivors will rapidly reproduce. The mess, too, may soon recycle itself. Scavenging gulls, crabs, and microbes can be better at cleanup than any human operation.

Fish kills occur for several reasons. Some species die naturally in large numbers after spawning or in harsh weather. In some estuaries, pathogens abound. Shipping accidents can release deadly toxins. Oil spills, for example, will normally spare fin fish, but other sorts of spills can be more deadly and other species more vulnerable, especially where tides meet the shore.

By far the most common cause of death in a fish kill is a sudden shortage or absence of oxygen in shallow waters. (See "Hypoxia and Anoxia") Fish suffocate or become vulnerable to stresses that they would otherwise survive. So a fish kill generally warrants concern more as an indicator of poor water quality than as an environmental hazard in itself.

Fish kills are rare but have occurred in a few corners of Narragansett Bay once or twice every couple of years. They are most likely to happen where waters are sheltered, warm and shallow, on a summer night with a weak ("neap") tide.

What should I do?
If you encounter a fish kill - more than a few fish or shellfish that are dead or that look sick - follow common-sense precautions:
  • Stay out of waters in the vicinity.
  • Do not eat, handle, or collect any fish, shellfish, other items from those waters.
  • Do not let pets wade or swim in, drink, or eat fish from those waters.
  • Check for information or file a report on the Bay Line: 222-8888 (May 15 to Oct. 15)
  • If you experience illness that may be related to exposures at a fish kill, seek medical assistance. (If the cause of the fish kill is low oxygen, contact presents little risk to humans. But if a hazardous substance is involved, more caution will be required. For example, when a fish kill involves spilled oil or gasoline, the Department of Health will provide appropriate advice.)
Is it still safe to eat seafood from the Bay?
  • See "Fishing in Narragansett Bay"
  • In general, it is safe to eat seafood that appears healthy and that has been handled and stored properly after being caught.
More information on-line

For General Information 222-6800 • After Hours Emergencies 222-3070 • Disclaimer
rev. 11/20/06