This began with a call from one of my volunteers who was checking salinity at Shoreline Park. She reported the salinity, but also reported to smell of dead fish – though she could not see them. I visited Shoreline Park the following day on another project and could smell it as well. There was a large amount of dead seagrass washed ashore from a recent storm and I thought this may be the cause of the smell because I did not see the dead fish either.
When I got home, I checked the FWC fish kill database. It reported a redfish kill in Pensacola Bay. It is unusual to see a kill of only one species. Many times, these are releases from fishing activity, particularly bait, and thought this must be the case – FWC did not mention the cause. I let the volunteer know and asked to keep an eye out.
I reported this to the Escambia County Division of Marine Resources to (a) let them know, and (b) to find out if they had any idea of cause. They replied that the location was incorrect. The kill was actually near Galvez Landing on Innerarity Point. He (Robert Turpin) had visited the site and did find any dead fish. I have a lot of volunteers over that way so asked each to take a look. They did not see any dead fish. I asked them to keep an eye out and collect a dead fish if they saw one for testing. Often when a large fish kill occurs, and it is only one species, the suspect cause is disease. Tissue samples could confirm this.
And then came another call.
This time it was from one of our Master Naturalist who lives on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. He wanted to know what was up with all of the dead redfish along the shore of the bay. He sent photos and his beach was littered with them. I reached out to Mississippi/Alabama Sea Grant to see if they knew what was going on. They had heard about the situation and knew the Alabama Department of Natural Resources was collecting samples. The Gulf Islands National Seashore then reported large numbers of dead redfish along the National Shores property in Mississippi, something was up.
I eventually got word from Dr. Marcus Drymon at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. They had a team working on this. Their team reported that stratification of the Gulf had created a hypoxic (low dissolved oxygen) layer on the bottom and the male “bull redfish” had gathered for breeding and died.
So, we are back to our title – what is stratification and how did this cause the fish kill?
Stratification is the layering of the water. Less dense water will sit atop the more dense. Water temperature or salinity can cause this density difference and layering. Colder and/or saltier water is denser and will form the bottom layer. If you have high winds, it will mix the water and the stratification disappears. Tides and currents can affect this as well.
What they believe happened recently was excessive amounts of rainfall created a large layer of freshwater to move from Mobile Bay into the open Gulf. The combination of tides and wind allowed a stratified layer to form. The oxygen that marine life uses is dissolved into the water at the surface and referred to as dissolved oxygen (DO). If the system is stratified, then the oxygen dissolved at the surface will not reach the bottom and hypoxia (low DO) can happen. They this is what happen. It just so happens that the large male redfish (bull reds) had congregated just offshore for breeding. They are more sensitive to low DO than the smaller females and any juveniles. So, the males died. To answer the question as to why other fish did not die (what you typically see in a DO related fish kill) – the numbers were not mentioned by there was one reference to 4.0 ppm. This is the high threshold of hypoxia. Many fish can tolerate at this concentration, but the male redfish could not.
So, that is what we think happened. The perfect storm of the demise of a group of male redfish just off of Mobile, and the carcasses drifted to other locations.