State officials to test latest fish kill

By by Maya Rodriguez / Eyewitness News, WWLTV
September 21, 2010

PLAQUEMINES — Thousands of dead fish floated along Bayou Robinson on Sunday, the latest in a string of four major fish kills plaguing Plaquemines Parish.

"Millions of fish, absolutely, millions," said P.J. Hahn, Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Management director. "We’re used to seeing fish kills out here at this time of year, but not at this number, mass number of fish that are dying, and not in the frequency that they are occurring now."

What the four areas have in common is not just the fish kills, but also the fact they were previously hit by oil from the spill, prompting parish leaders to ask the state to test the dead fish.

"We don’t have the expertise. I’ve got a health department with six people in it,” said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is the responding agency for fish kills. They sent biologists out to the sites and blamed the kills on low oxygen levels in the water — a conclusion they reached without doing a single test on the dead fish.

"For the lay person it’s alarming, the pictures are dramatic. But in the reality of the habitat and the food chain and everything that’s out there in the system, it’s not a significant kill.,” said Randy Pausina, head of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Pausina said the agency’s teams looked at the fish kills, so they concluded an offshore dead zone, which occurs annually, forced fish towards inland waterways.

"If the tide drops they get trapped in there and they die. There’s just too much fish jammed in there, and that’s kind of what we’re seeing right now that’s happening along the coast,” Pausina said.

No further testing was done, Pausina said, because the teams dispatched to the fish kills didn’t see any oil related pollution.

"These people are trained. This is what they do. They spend their whole careers doing that. We train them. There’s a full fish kill protocol,” Pausina said. “In light of the Deepwater Horizon event, they’ve also received additional training, sensory training where they can smell the fish, and there’s different techniques that the FDA has come down and taught our people that all would be indicators that would say, hey, something is not right here, we’ve never seen this before, let’s take it to the next level. And so far in these kills, we haven’t seen that.”

Yet Pausina said the agency recognizes that the fish kills present a perception problem, especially for those trying to get the message out that Gulf seafood is safe to eat.

"Odd things are going on nowadays and people are at a higher level of alert, so they’re noticing and picking up on things they would have overlooked. I feel extremely confident that the state is going well above and beyond the call of duty,” Pausina said.

Within 30 minutes of our interview, a spokesperson for Wildlife and Fisheries contacted Eyewitness News, saying they would now in fact be testing the fish from the fish kill in Bayou Robinson.