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Sores, lesions: Early fish kill in Neuse worries those who use the river

Bill Leslie, WRAL reporterMay 23, 2019

State environmental crews are investigating a disturbing fish kill in the Neuse River. They’re trying to figure out why numerous schools of menhaden are breaking out in sores and dying in the river near New Bern. They say it is unusual because it is still early in the yearly river cycle.

The images are grotesque. Fish in the Neuse River swimming around with their insides hanging out. A closer look shows menhaden saddled with open sores and lesions.

Rick Dove, a lifelong Neuse River advocate, noticed the problem as he worked on his property about 12 miles east of New Bern.

“I didn’t even know it was happening. I was building my dock, and these guys started swimming here. I said, ‘Holy mackerel! This not right,’” he said.

″(I was) very surprised for several reasons. For one, it’s really early in the year. It’s rare to see fish deaths prior to June or July,” Dove said. Fish kills are more likely in August and September, when the water is warmer, oxygen levels are lower and algae blooms are raging.

The fish kill is the first to be reported after a WRAL Documentary in April revealed disturbing new pollution problems in the Neuse.

“In a nutshell, the river is in very poor health and declining and continuing to decline,” said JoAnn Burkholder, an aquatics ecologist at North Carolina State University.

Hans Paerl, the Kenan Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute, said he believes pollution stirred up by Hurricane Florence could be the culprit now. And Paerl warns that water quality could deteriorate all summer if the weather is hot and dry.

Scientists blame nutrient pollution from urban runoff, large industrial farms and waste water treatment plants.

Dove says the fish by his dock are sending a message. “These fish are important,” he said. “They’re dying, and this river is the life blood of this community, and if it dies, we die with it.”

Test results from fish and water samples are not due back until next week.

State environmental leaders warned those who swim in the Neuse River to stay away from areas with diseased fish.

Katy Langley, Lower Neuse Riverkeeper, has a task for all who drink, fish and enjoy the river.

“We all need to be the voice of the river,” she said. “We need to say, ‘Hey, this is unacceptable! This is my river, and there’s a bunch of dead fish floating in there. It’s unacceptable, and I want things changed!’”

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