Event is natural occurrence every few years
By Katherine Lacaze
“Does Seaside smell?”
That was a common question posed by prospective visitors calling Jeff Ter Har, the co-owner of a local clothing store, after word got out last week that the banks of the Necanicum River were painted silvery white with thousands of dead anchovies.
People called in to the store, trying to find out “if it really smells here,” he said, adding that news outlets had “definitely done some press about the stink in Seaside.”
Business fortunately did not suffer for him in the days following the somewhat alarming but not unprecedented occurrence in Seaside, even though parts of the city for several days were filled with the scent of thousands of dead fish decomposing on the Necanicum River.
“It kind of looks like the apocalypse,” Tiffany Boothe, the administrative assistant at Seaside Aquarium, joked the morning the fish were found.
However, the occurrence, she said, is a natural phenomenon.
Every few years, an unusually large school of anchovies moves from the ocean to the river.
“When they come into the river, it depletes the oxygen,” and thousands of the anchovies and some of the other fish die, Boothe said. There simply is not enough oxygen for them all.
Lee Cain, who teaches the aquatic biology program at Astoria High School, said there could be other contributing factors as well.
If the school of anchovies moves in far enough, the fish get into water with less salinity, which can create distress, he said. Also, the temperature in shallow water tends to be higher.
“It’s kind of a combination of things,” he said.
The cove in the Necanicum estuary is a “very natural feeding area” for fish, sea birds and other aquatic wildlife, Cain said.
He believes the anchovies, which don’t have any need to be in the estuary and usually stay behind the surf zone, could have been driven to the river by predators, only to encounter these unfavorable conditions.
“That would be my guess based on the past times,” Cain said.
While that meant bad news for those who had to walk past the river in the days following the incident and get a whiff of the dead fish on the riverbanks, the event is a positive sign.
“It’s kind of a cool and good indicator that things are working right now,” said Melyssa Graeper, coordinator for the Necanicum Watershed Council.
The event means the anchovy population is strong and “there are so many of them they’re looking for other places to go,” Graeper said. As the fish decompose, they add beneficial nutrients to the river, riverbanks and surrounding vegetation.
“It’s a good, natural thing,” Boothe said.
The pelicans, seagulls and other birds that feasted on the fish throughout the week seemed to agree.
“It’s a big boon for them,” she said.
Only a few hundred anchovies lay dead on the banks near the mouth of the river on the northern side of Seaside. More fish appeared farther south on the river, some floating, some lying lifeless on the banks and making the banks appear white.
Overall, the event is “part of the natural cycle of things that happen in our estuary and up and down the coast,” Graeper said.
The last occurrence of what seemed to be a massacre of anchovies was several years ago and affected both the Necanicum and Neawanna rivers, Boothe said. The event this year took place only in the Necanicum River.
A similar occurrence happens regularly on a somewhat cyclical basis, so it is a “pretty normal” event, Cain suggested.
The death of the fish “isn’t going to negatively affect the anchovy population,” Boothe said.
A couple who had walked past the river on Necanicum Drive on the evening of July 28 said the fish were not there at that time. By the morning of July 29, they had showed up.
Unsuspecting visitors and locals not armed with the cause of the event found the appearance of the fish coating the river banks to be a bit alarming.
Several mentioned how “odd” and “creepy” it was to see so many dead anchovies for no apparent reason. One visitor said he had never seen anything like it.
“Calling all seagulls,” quipped a Seaside man who lives close to the river.
Many people stopped to snap photos of the unusual site.
Boothe said the fish would be around for only a handful of days before they were eaten by the birds or decompose. Earlier this week, however, the smell continued to linger a little longer.
‘It kind of looks like the apocalypse’