Dead fish float in a drying pond near Rock Port, Mo, July 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -
Thousands of fish are dying in the Midwest as
the hot, dry summer dries up rivers and causes water temperatures to
climb in some spots to nearly 100 degrees.
About 40,000 shovelnose sturgeon were killed
in Iowa last week as water temperatures reached 97 degrees. Nebraska
fishery officials said they've seen thousands of dead sturgeon, catfish,
carp, and other species in the Lower Platte River, including the
endangered pallid sturgeon. And biologists in Illinois said the hot
weather has killed tens of thousands of large- and smallmouth bass and
channel catfish and is threatening the population of the greater
redhorse fish, a state-endangered species.
So many fish died in one Illinois lake that
the carcasses clogged an intake screen near a power plant, lowering
water levels to the point that the station had to shut down one of its
"It's something I've never seen in my career,
and I've been here for more than 17 years," said Mark Flammang, a
fisheries biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "I
think what we're mainly dealing with here are the extremely low flows
and this unparalleled heat."
The fish are victims of one of the driest and
warmest summers in history. The federal U.S. Drought Monitor shows
nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states are experiencing some form of
drought, and the Department of Agriculture has declared more than half
of the nation's counties - nearly 1,600 in 32 states - as natural
disaster areas. More than 3,000 heat records were broken over the last
Iowa DNR officials said the sturgeon found
dead in the Des Moines River were worth nearly $10 million, a high value
based in part on their highly sought eggs, which are used for caviar.
The fish are valued at more than $110 a pound.
Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National
Fisheries Institute, said the sturgeon kills don't appear to have
reduced the supply enough to hurt regional caviar suppliers.
Flammang said weekend rain improved some of
Iowa's rivers and lakes, but temperatures were rising again and
straining a sturgeon population that develops health problems when water
temperatures climb into the 80s.
"Those fish have been in these rivers for
thousands of thousands of years, and they're accustomed to all sorts of
weather conditions," he said. "But sometimes, you have conditions occur
that are outside their realm of tolerance."
In Illinois, heat and lack of rain has dried
up a large swath of Aux Sable Creek, the state's largest habitat for the
endangered greater redhorse, a large bottom-feeding fish, said Dan
Stephenson, a biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural
"We're talking hundreds of thousands
(killed), maybe millions by now," Stephenson said. "If you're only
talking about game fish, it's probably in the thousands. But for all
fish, it's probably in the millions if you look statewide."
Stephenson said fish kills happen most
summers in small private ponds and streams, but the hot weather this
year has made the situation much worse.
"This year has been really, really bad - disproportionately bad, compared to our other years," he said.
Stephenson said a large number of dead fish
were sucked into an intake screen near Powerton Lake in central
Illinois, lowering water levels and forcing a temporary shutdown at a
nearby power plant. A spokesman for Edison International, which runs the
coal-fired plant, said workers shut down one of its two generators for
several hours two weeks ago because of extreme heat and low water levels
at the lake, which is used for cooling.
In Nebraska, a stretch of the Platte River
from Kearney in the central part of the state to Columbus in the east
has gone dry and killed a "significant number" of sturgeon, catfish and
minnows, said fisheries program manager Daryl Bauer. Bauer said the
warm, shallow water has also killed an unknown number of endangered
"It's a lot of miles of river, and a lot of
fish," Bauer said. "Most of those fish are barely identifiable. In this
heat, they decay really fast."
Bauer said a single dry year usually isn't
enough to hurt the fish population. But he worries dry conditions in
Nebraska could continue, repeating a stretch in the mid-2000s that
weakened fish populations.
Kansas also has seen declining water levels
that pulled younger, smaller game fish away from the vegetation-rich
shore lines and forced them to cluster, making them easier targets for
predators, said fisheries chief Doug Nygren of the Department of
Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
Nygren said he expects a drop in adult
walleye populations in the state's shallower, wind-swept lakes in
southern Kansas. But he said other species, such as large-mouth bass,
can tolerate the heat and may multiply faster without competition from
"These last two years are the hottest we've
ever seen," Nygren said. "That really can play a role in changing
populations, shifting it in favor of some species over others. The
walleye won't benefit from these high-water temperatures, but other
species that are more tolerant may take advantage of their declining
Geno Adams, a fisheries program administrator
in South Dakota, said there have been reports of isolated fish kills in
its manmade lakes on the Missouri River and others in the eastern part
of the state. But it's unclear how much of a role the heat played in the
One large batch of carp at Lewis and Clark
Lake in the state's southeast corner had lesions, a sign they were
suffering from a bacterial infection. Adams said the fish are more prone
to sickness with low water levels and extreme heat. But he added that
other fish habitat have seen a record number this year thanks to the
"When we're in a drought, there's a struggle
for water and it's going in all different directions," Adams said.
"Keeping it in the reservoir for recreational fisheries is not at the
top of the priority list."
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