Lake Erie Fish Die-Off

Photo by Carl Feagans
Photo by Carl Feagans

Recently, I was in Ohio on vacation and I snapped this photo while on a ferry ride between South Bass Island and the mainland. Every few meters during the trip I noticed dead fish floating near the surface.

Seeing so many dead fish is disconcerting to say the least and asked one of the deckhands on the ferry but he didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. Is it possible that he never noticed all these fish floating on the surface? Because of the busy nature of being on vacation, I nearly forgot the matter until I was looking over some my photos today. The fish appear to me to be Freshwater Drum (though I could very well be wrong), so I googled “lake erie dead fish” and started following links to see if there was any news on the issue. Apparently there is.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), there is a problem with not just fish but mudpuppies as well. I was in Ohio near South Bass Island, not the New York side of the lake, but it is all one big body of water. The article explains that fish die offs have a variety of causes, including temperature changes and diseases. One notable culprit, according to the article, is Type E botulism toxin, a poison produced by by Clostridium botulinum, which can be harmful to humans if infected fish are eaten. This bacterium has been problematic in the past in the Great Lakes, so it may be making a comeback.

It occurred to me also that there could be alien toxins or diseases being introduced from the bilges of ships that enter the Lake from outside via the canal systems that link Lake Erie to the Hudson River. It might also be that nitrogen from agricultural run-offs into the lake create algae blooms that, in turn, create anoxic zones in the lake where the fish simply choke to death then rise to the surface.

On a brighter note, but perhaps not for those who suffer from ophidiophobia, the Lake Erie Water Snake population seems to be increased enough that the snake may soon be removed from the endangered list. This nonvenomous snake was placed on the endangered list in 1991 after nearly being eradicated by people who mistook it for poisonous. Though it isn’t poisonous, they’re certainly willing to bite when handled and they have an anticoagulant that makes the tiny wound continue to bleed for a while, appearing as if you opened up an artery.

Photo by Carl Feagans
Photo by Carl Feagans

I shot this picture at the ferry dock when my daughter noticed it sunning on the rock. They’re most commonly seen in the spring and further investigation revealed several dozen more of his friends, also hanging out on the rocks. Most of them tangled in knots of six or seven.

If anyone has information regarding the dead fish in Lake Erie or links, please share. I’m definitely not an expert on the subject and only admit to having a few thoughts and questions on the subject, not answers.

About Carl Feagans 398 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.


  1. I came across your website today when I googled “dead fish in Lake Erie”.
    I live in the Township of Wainfleet on Lake Erie not far from Port Colborne and the Welland Canal, on a piece of land known as Morgan’s Point Road with the lake to the east and west of us. A couple of us have cottages to rent in summer (and winter), so it is very unpleasant to say the least to see the dead fish coming ashore in droves summer after summer. I am relatively new to the area and have been told that this happens regularly. Unfortunately I cannot seem to get anyone interested in why this is happening. Have you had any luck? There is a lot of buck-passing going on. I am sure that somewhere in some bureaucracy, there is information to share with everyone concerned with the environmental health of the Great Lakes. Now I see that President Obama has signed for funding of US$475 million for the Great Lakes. Will that help the fish and when? In the meantime, how do we get the people responsible for our welfare to clean up the beaches? Our mayor does not seem to me to be the least bit interested; if she were, we would have clean beaches. A couple of us are collecting the dead fish and burying them, however, we are not marine biologists and we would like to know the cause of this phenomenon. I find the whole thing very disturbing. Along with the dead fish I sometimes find dead seagulls which I think means that they die from eating the fish. In addition, each time I come back from the shoreline conservation park, I have a bag full of litter off the beach. It looks to me like garbage is being processed somewhere and simply gets dumped into the lake. Every imaginable product. Very depressing.
    19 July 2009

  2. I feel the same way. I come from Dunnville which is near the mouth of the Grand River in Ontario. My family has a cottage near Port Maitland going west and there are so many different species of fish that have floated up to the beach. The bones are becoming the beach! I have asked and been asked if anyone knew what we can do to help alleviate this terrible situation but, no one is able to help. These bodies of water which are the Great Lakes are large but very fragile. Living near them most of my life, I view them as an integral part of my life and those living things around them. Something must be done and the word must be spread. Every little thing helps!

  3. Its sickening how this kind of stuff keeps happening. I went to Turkey Point last weekend and all along the shore was death. The smell was horried and not a SINGLE local could tell me why it happens, its just a part of their life there. My girlfriend has her masters in Marine Biology, is there somewhere she can apply for a grant to research this?

  4. I’m also interested in knowing why these
    Dead fish and seagulls are appearing on
    The shores. Since there are a few of us
    With interest we should try to do something
    Together. There must be a masters student
    Out there who needs to research something.
    Has anyone tried contacting the Niagara
    Conservation Association. Sometimes taking
    Things into our own hands is how things
    Get done. Any takers?

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