WEST JEFFERSON, Ohio — When the possible illegal application of manure on farm fields was followed by a major rain-producing storm, around 15,000 fish in Beaver Creek in eastern Williams County were killed.
The recent incident, still under investigation by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the state Environmental Protection Agency, rendered about a 10-mile stretch of the waterway devoid of life in what was likely just a few hours.
“A large amount of rain in a short time that washed that into the creek, and ammonia from the manure gets into the creek and sucks the dissolved oxygen out of the water, and that is what causes the die-off of the fish,” said Anthony Lemle, the Williams County wildlife officer who was part of the Division of Wildlife team that searched the stream and counted many of the dead fish.
The Beaver Creek fish kill, one of three large fish kills in Northwest Ohio in the past month that have been connected to livestock manure spread on farm fields, claimed thousands of small fish, mostly minnows, along with some sportfish such as sunfish, northern pike, and likely smallmouth bass.
“What you would expect to see in one of these smaller feeder creeks is a variety of minnow species, some spotfin shiners, some stonerollers and fathead minnows, plus some suckers and probably a few bullheads,” said Mike Wilkerson, fish management supervisor for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife, for the northwest district.
Wilkerson said the presence of sunfish and northern pike are likely an indication this was a healthy stretch of waterway, possibly fed in part by some springs. He expects the Williams County creek to heal quickly, now that the oxygen-robbing ammonia from the manure has broken down and been diluted and washed out of the system.
“Migration happens and fish move back into those areas from downstream,” he said. “Usually within several months you will see all types of fish starting to repopulate the area, and within a year you probably can’t tell that anything happened.”
Wilkerson said the ecosystems present in the creeks and small streams are quite resilient, and that there is not really anything biologists could do to speed up the healing, other than to make sure the source of the pollutants has been controlled.
“Once you remove whatever caused the fish kill, the system will take care of itself pretty quickly,” he said. “And as far as the dead fish go — nature will take care of that, too. The raccoons and everything else will eat well for a while.”
Despite the encouraging prognosis for the stretch of Beaver Creek hit by last week’s fish kill, many view the incident as just the most recent reminder of the damage that runoff associated with livestock manure can inflict on our waterways. For Dave Spangler, a veteran Lake Erie charterboat captain and the president of the Lake Erie Waterkeeper organization, these fish kills on tributaries feeding into the lake are the equivalent of the canary in the coal mine dropping dead.
“We can’t just treat this as ‘OK, we got a big bunch of dead minnows’ — this shows us what can happen, and what will happen, if we are not vigilant about what we allow to run off into our streams,” Spangler said. “This involved thousands of fish, and I’m pretty sure if I dragged a big net around out in the lake and killed thousands of fish, I’d be in jail for a very long time. Just because this happened in a little stream doesn’t make it less bad.”
Spangler said that since fish kills often occur in more remote areas, his group and the general public are often not aware of the incidents until months have passed, but he hopes this latest fish kill brings the issue to the forefront.
“If fish are being killed because of something someone did, then obviously the rules are not being followed, and as far as I’m concerned, someone needs to pay for this,” Spangler said. “We can’t look at it as an insignificant thing just because most of the fish were minnows. Those fish belong to everyone, and everything has value, even minnows.”
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