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New kill wipes out hundreds of snook in The Shores lakes

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of January 1, 2015)

Another fish kill in the Shores, a bucolic barrier island subdivision with upscale homes built around a series of interconnected lakes, has wiped out hundreds of fish and caused macabre scenes just before Christmas.

“My best estimate is that about 200 fish died, all snook in the 20-inch to 24-inch range,” says George Auflick, The Shores resident who first noticed the kill and notified the Florida Fish and Wildlife fish kill hotline. “The kill extended throughout the lake system.”

There was a much larger kill in the 70-home community last April that included tarpon, lady fish and sheepshead as well as snook. Pesticide was suspected in that kill but a state investigation was inconclusive.

The state issued a warning letter to the aquatic pesticide applicator who had recently put down weed killer along the shore of the lake system for failing to wear proper protective equipment while handling pesticide but no other violations were identified during the investigation, “and ultimately, the cause of the fish kill could not be determined,” according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.

“The [recent] kill began on Nov. 30 and lasted for about two weeks,” says Auflick. “We saw the last dead fish on Dec. 15.”

The fish exhibited “pooling” behavior, circling in a school in shallow water near the shore as they died, according to Auflick.

“They would bring their heads up on the sand and gulp for air with their mouths open. It was extremely disheartening to see that and know that you couldn’t do anything about it and to see them dying every day for two weeks.

“Some of them were bleeding from their mouths and gills, which seems to me like a sign of pesticide poisoning.”

The scene was made more macabre by vultures that descended to devour the fish as they died.

Dave Morgan, vice president of The Shores Home Owners Association board of directors, says the board instructed its lake management company to take water samples as soon as it learned of the fish kill. He was uncertain if pesticides had been applied around the lakes prior to fish beginning to die.

“As far as I know, we do everything we can to keep our lakes healthy,” says Morgan, who serves on the board of the Environmental Learning Center.

“We spent thousands of dollars to install aerators in the lake to increase the oxygen levels and we have water samples taken on a regular basis with results reported to the board and our lake committee.

“We did notice there was a decrease in the oxygen level near the end of November, which could have something to do with the fish dying.”

Auflick says that the two kills have decimated the fish population in the community’s lakes.

“I haven’t seen a fish jump in weeks or seen anyone catch a fish in months. I am an avid fisherman and I had some boat captains come in and fish with me over the summer after the first kill and we could not catch a fish.

“In my opinion the ecology of the lake is out of balance. There is clearly something wrong. The bottom of the lake is overrun with turtles and there were more crabs this year than anyone has ever seen, maybe because there are no big fish left to eat them. I just hope we can figure out what the problem is and fix it.”

When Auflick contacted the fish kill hotline, hotline coordinator Catalina Brown sent him a cooler and asked him to Fedex her two of the dead fish for analysis, which he did on Dec. 16.

He also sent water samples in special vials that fix the chemical composition of the water so that it can be tested for contaminants, along with a detailed description of how the fish behaved while dying.

Last spring it took several months for water testing and other aspects of the investigation to be completed and reported to The Shores board, so it may be well into the New Year before the state renders an opinion about the cause of the latest kill.

“Everyone here is interested in getting to the bottom of this,” says Morgan. “If it is a natural phenomenon, then maybe there is nothing we can do about it, but if there is something we can do we will certainly do it.”