It would have been just another beautiful day at the beach if not for one freakish thing: All the dead fish floating in the ocean and washing up on shore.
Clive Taylor has been going to Hollywood beach his entire life and has never seen anything like it.
“They’re like everywhere,” he said. “On the shore and in the water. You can smell them.”
Hollywood was not the only beach impacted.
Hallandale Beach had at least 2,000 tiny dead fish floating up on shore Friday, according to Jim McCrady, supervisor of the city’s lifeguards.
With water temperatures rising to record levels over the summer, climate scientists have warned of the potential for coastal fish kills and other impacts to South Florida’s marine environment, including algae blooms and coral reef bleaching.
Waters off Florida’s southeastern coast are running about 3.5 degrees higher than normal in Fahrenheit, with waters in the Florida Keys running a staggering 7 degrees above average, according to a recent report by The Miami Herald.
Taylor, a Hollywood native, was taken aback by the sight of dead fish on his hometown beach.
He wanted to head back to his car, but had to wait on a friend who dared to venture into the ocean for a swim.
“I would leave but my friend has been dying to go to the beach,” he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “She’s swimming among the dead fish. I talked to the lifeguard. His theory is the ocean is really warm in the shallow part. And it’s been really hot. He feels like they got trapped in the shallow end and died.”
Hot seawater can cause extra stress on fish — especially those that cannot move into colder, deeper waters, said David Kerstetter, an associate professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Fisheries and Avian Ecology Laboratory.
University of Miami Professor Martin Grosell, chair of the Department of Marine Biology and Ecology, agreed.
“I cannot speak to the exact cause of the mortality of these fish, but the high temperature is a very likely factor,” Grosell said. “Frankly, I’ve been expecting this because of the very high temperatures. There’s no question that the very high temperatures we’ve seen this summer are very stressful to a lot of marine life.”
Kerstetter noted that the Fish Kill Hotline run by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been off the charts across the state over the past few weeks.
A spokeswoman for the agency declined to comment Friday, saying she needed more time to check with a state biologist about what might have caused the fish kill in Hollywood and Hallandale Beach.
Renee Podolsky, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Broward, declined to comment, referring questions to Florida Fish and Wildlife.
Hollywood spokeswoman Joann Hussey did not have an estimate on how many dead fish were floating in the water on Friday, but said the beach remained open.
“Lifeguards fly the purple marine warning flag when there are jellyfish or man o’ war,” she said. “Fish would not qualify, so no warning flags are flying. The sandy beach and ocean are open to those who choose to swim at their own risk.”
McCrady, chief of Hallandale Beach Ocean Rescue, says he called the Department of Health to report the dead fish and was told recent water tests were normal.
“We had some dead fish yesterday, but it wasn’t that bad,” he said. “It got worse today. Florida Fish and Wildlife told me the fish kill is most likely the result of high water temperatures and runoff from the recent rainstorms. Organic material is washed out through the inlets. It compromises the oxygen levels in the near-shore ocean and the smaller, less-hearty fish species die as a result.”
It’s hard to predict whether we will see more fish kills this summer, Grosell said.
“There’s a couple different factors going on,” he said. “Globally we are seeing an increase in temperatures. And locally, this summer has been particularly warm here.”
As the temperature rises, the amount of oxygen in the water decreases.
“The warmer the water, the less oxygen,” Grosell said. “On the other hand, most animals that live in the ocean have the same temperature as the environment. A fish in hot water will have a higher temperature than a fish in cold water. And at higher temperatures, there’s a higher need for oxygen. It’s just bad news. The entire ecosystem is consuming more oxygen and there’s less available.”
Stormwater runoff only makes things worse, Grosell said.
“Runoff can contain a lot of nasty things that can contribute to fish kills,” he said. “And that could be the cause of this fish kill. We don’t know for sure.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan