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Fish suffocating in eastern NC waters weeks after Hurricane Florence

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The Trent River overflows its banks and floods a neighborhood during Hurricane Florence in River Bend, North Carolina, on Thursday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

RALEIGH, N.C.  — Fish continue to die off on the coast weeks after Hurricane Florence struck North Carolina.

Fisheries biologists from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission are still documenting what they’re calling “widespread fish kills” on the eastern side of the state.

The fish kills are not caused by contaminants, pollution or factors like those. Instead, the fish are suffocating due to a decrease in dissolved oxygen in lakes and rivers.

As long as the oxygen levels remain lowered, the fish kills will continue.

Biologists believe it could be several more weeks before levels return to normal.

The NCWRC explained that, when Hurricane Florence hit, water flooded vast areas of swampland, which are naturally lower in dissolved oxygen.

When those waters receded, it caused a flushing effect which signficantly dropped the oxygen levels in rivers and creeks.

The optimum background oxygen level for most fish species is 5 to 6 parts per million or higher.

When those levels drop to 2 parts per million, fish often gasp at the surface and become lethargic, according the NCWRC.

As of Thursday, the widespread fish kills were reported at the following locations:

  • Cape Fear River from Tar Heel to Southport
  • Sutton Lake near Wilmington
  • Northeast Cape Fear River from Kenansville to Wilmington
  • Black River from Garland to the Cape Fear River
  • South River from Garland to the Black River
  • Lumber River from Lumberton into South Carolina
  • Waccamaw River from the headwaters into South Carolina
  • Pungo River upstream of Belhaven
  • Neuse River from Goldsboro to Fort Barnwell
  • Contentnea Creek downstream of Hookerton
  • Trent River from Pleasant Hill downstream to the mouth at New Bern
  • White Oak River from the headwaters to Stella
  • Cashie River from Windsor to the mouth at Albemarle Sound
  • Roanoke River downstream of Highway 45 to the mouth at Albemarle Sound
  • Chowan River upstream of Winton

“Numerous strandings of fish on roadways and adjacent to various water bodies have also been observed following substantial flooding,” Thomas said.

According to Coastal Region Fishery Supervisor Chad Thomas, the state faced a similar situation after Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

As water levels return to what they previously were and temperatures drop, the dissolved oxygen levels are expected to return to normal.

Next spring, crews will check on how fish species have been impacted by the fish kills and map out strategies to help the fish stocks recover.

“These coastal systems are resilient, and with time, the fish populations in the impacted waters will recover, as they did after Hurricane Irene in 2011,” Thomas said.

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