Photos by Brian Merchant
Dauphin Island, right off the coast of Alabama, was one of the first places to report oil making landfall on its shores. The oil hit Dauphin's beach in the form of small tar balls -- similar to those I found washing up on the shore of Louisiana. Now, just a few days later, hundreds of dead fish have washed up on the same island. I captured the grisly scene, or at least attempted to -- there were too many dead catfish littering the beach to photograph. Another reporter staying on Dauphin tipped me off that fish were washing ashore in droves on a public beach, so I headed over to check it out. Sure enough, the beach was lined with dead fish.
I haven't been able to confirm whether the oil spill played any role in the death of these fish, and there are other reasons that catfish wash ashore on Dauphin Island, like fungal infections, and being killed as bycatch by shrimp trawlers.
But local ecologist Lauren Showalter told me that it's unusual for the sheer number to wash ashore, especially at such a large size -- many of the dead fish seen here were over two feet long. But "They don't show any signs of oil contamination," she said, looking at the photos, though she said that doesn't rule it out. "Inconclusive is a very appropriate term for what's going on," she said. She says the experimental chemical dispersants BP is using to break up the slick could play a role as well.
It was a striking scene, to say the least -- I walked for miles, with a dead fish every couple feet. This video should give you an idea of what it looked like:
And here are some more photos
There were dead fish washing ashore on other beaches on the island as well.
I eventually came to a dead black drum fish that was nearly four feet long . . .
. . . as you can see here.
After walking the bulk of the stretch, I'd say a conservative estimate for the death toll was in the several-hundred range -- it could be more. We'll have to wait and see to find out whether oil, or the chemical dispersants sprayed into the oil, played any role in this unusual mass fish death.
More Reportage from on the Gulf Oil Spill
Oil Hits Louisiana Mainland - Exclusive First Photos & Video
Gulf Oil Spill Grinds Local Seafood Business to a Halt (Video)