Cold snap kills fish across Virginia, North Carolina

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — One of the coldest winters the East Coast has seen in years is the culprit in the deaths of thousands of fish along coastal Virginia and North Carolina.

“This is by far the most extreme case I’ve ever seen,” said Virginia Beach resident Andrew Mellon, who has grown up fishing in the area.

Mellon took WAVY.com to the canal in his family’s backyard, where hundreds of dead fish floated in the water. He said there were even more before recent rainfall. Like many across the region, fishing is a passion for him, but for many others, it’s how they make a living. The large numbers of speckled trout and puppy drum washing up near docks and canals is alarming, even though it’s to be expected.

Photos: Cold snap kills fish in Va., N.C.

“It’s a naturally occurring event to where fish can probably take certain temperatures up to a certain point,” said David Wright, a charter boat captain out of Rudee Inlet. “And after that, they become very lethargic. You can actually reach down and grab them without them swimming away from you because they get stunned by this cold.”

Susanna Musick, a marine recreation specialist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said the fish deaths are natural and called a “cold stun kill.” 

“From the limited data we have in terms of numbers, it just seems to be on a larger scale this year,” Musick said.

Many fish species swim to warmer water when the weather gets cold, but some fish will stay in the Chesapeake Bay, especially because the area will still experience some 60 degree days during the winter.

“When the water temperature changes quickly and we get a cold snap, then they may be stranded there or be stunned because of the cold weather,” Musick said.

However, some fish are stunned, but do survive. They swim very slowly near the surface of the water, most likely trying to warm themselves in the sun. And that is good news for people looking forward to fishing in the upcoming season.

“That’s just a small glimpse of hope they’re not all gone,” said Mellon, while looking at a fish still swimming in the canal.

However, the situation is so serious in North Carolina, the state has banned all recreational and commercial fishing of speckled trout until mid-June.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said the impact is statewide, but Tyrrell County, Dare County, Hyde County are among the hardest-hit. Captain Joey VanDyke charters boats out of Swan Quarter, N.C. in the winter. He said he’s seen hundreds of dead fish in the icy waters of the Pungo River.

If you’re caught fishing speckled trout in N.C. waters before mid-June, the minimum penalty is $215.

If you’d like to report a cold stun kill, you can contact the Virginia Marine Resources Commission at (757) 247-2200. Try to include how many dead fish you are observing.

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