What's killing the fish in Lake Champlain?

Published: Jun. 24, 2020 at 4:38 PM EDT
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Within the last few weeks, thousands of dead fish have washed up on the shores of Lake Champlain. As our Ike Bendavid learned, the recent high temperatures may have contributed to the fish kill but they were not the primary reason. However, that doesn't mean warm weather won't be a factor later in the year for wildlife on the lake.

Joy Bliss of Highgate Springs says she was walking the beach on the Missisquoi Bay when she noticed something.

"Dead fish-- dead fish!" she said.

And it wasn't just a few.

"I didn't count but they were all lined up on both sides of the beach here," Bliss said.

Vermont Fish and Wildlife Biologist Bernie Pientka responded to the call from other residents in the area two weeks ago.

"Came up and gave it a look-see and saw that there was a few hundred fish between here and the other areas I looked at," Pientka said.

After realizing there were thousands on the Vermont side washed up in the Missisquoi Bay area, he reached out to our neighbors up north in Quebec and found out they were seeing something similar in their part of Lake Champlain.

"They were looking into as well-- just kind of an odd situation," he said.

Pientka says it was the same types of fish washing up-- yellow perch, sunfish and pumpkin seed. That means there wasn't a mass issue or a spill in the lake that would have affected all species.

So what caused this?

"It's a factor of multiple issues going on," Pientka said.

Fish and Wildlife believes it's related to the fish being stressed during spawning combined with possibly a few fish with parasites-- it pushes them over the edge. And this isn't all that unusual; we might see a fish kill like this every 5-10 years or so.

"It's not certainly a bigger issue; it's something that occurs on cycle," Pientka said.

But with record high temperatures in the water and air, could we see some more issues with wildlife?

"It's hard to say. Our climate is changing and it's hard to predict," Pientka said.

Barry Lampke is a scientist with Echo. He says if the shorelines continue to recede, it could reduce food sources and cover vegetation for nesting animals like turtles.

"With low lake levels, it's a challenge for them to find a place to lay their eggs. And if the water level should rise suddenly, those eggs would be damaged and turtles could drown," Lampke said.

And if these hot temperatures continue, it means we could see more blue-green algae blooms.

"As those algae blooms decompose, they use up available oxygen and that can also cause a problem for fish and aquatic animals," Lampke said.

That's something Pientka agrees with.

"Definitely having a good, balanced ecosystem is going to be helpful so the fish and wildlife are not stressed," Pientka said.

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