BRUNSWICK — The town’s marine resources officer and a team of young volunteers spent much of the weekend cleaning up thousands of dead fish that had washed ashore after a fisherman failed to pull them into his boat.

By Monday morning, most of the dead fish – all pogies, a popular bait fish – had been removed, although some were left behind, along with a pungent smell.

Frank Strasburger, a retired pastor who lives on a private road near Simpsons Point, was among dozens of coastal property owners affected. He first noticed the fish a week ago Monday when he stepped outside to launch a kayak from his backyard, which overlooks Middle Bay. Strasburger could smell the fish, which likely had been dead for days, before he could see them.

“It was so strong, I couldn’t breathe,” he said. “I think we got the worst of it here.”

Anna Kelly looks over some of the dead pogies that washed ashore near where she lives on Middle Bay in Brunswick, to the dismay of neighbors forced to endure the smell of rotting fish. Staff photo by John Ewing

The Brunswick Police Department’s Marine Resources & Harbor Management Division said in a weekend statement that the dead fish were not the result of a mysterious predator or low oxygen in the water. They were simply part of a large catch on June 6 by a fishing vessel unable to handle it.

Maj. Rene Cloutier, head of law enforcement for the Maine Marine Patrol, said Monday that officials know the fisherman who was responsible but will not bring charges.

“The law doesn’t really support a charge,” Cloutier said. “If he had done this in a river or intertidal area, that would be different.”

State law restricts the release of a catch in those areas but not in open water, he said.

FISH NET OVERLOADED WITH CATCH

Pogies are caught using a fishing method called seine pursing, Cloutier said. Fisherman look for massive schools of fish and then use a special net to make a circle. Once the circle is complete, the fisherman pulls a string, which tightens the bottom of the netting. The fish start to concentrate in the net as it gets smaller and most die instantly.

After the string is pulled tight, the fisherman then hauls the net into his or her boat. In this instance, Cloutier said, the fisherman was not able to get the net into the boat and was forced to release the net – and the dead fish – back into the water. The fish eventually rode the tide to shore.

Asked if it was common for a fisherman not to haul in a net once it was cinched, Cloutier said he didn’t believe it was.

He said the fisherman, a local licensed operator whom Cloutier did not name, was questioned and advised that he should take precautions to ensure it didn’t happen again.

“As bad as this was, it’s better than a natural occurrence,” Cloutier said. “By that I mean, it’s isolated. It’s not something that will keep happening.”

Dan Devereaux, Brunswick’s marine resources officer, spent much of the weekend removing the fish that had washed up in dozens of inlets and coves within Middle Bay. He even enlisted a group of teenagers from the high school to help, and put out a call to other fishermen who might want to use the fish as bait.

At Simpsons Point on Monday, where there is a small boat launch, there were still fish on the rocks, sand and seaweed. Some were pecked to the bone by seabirds. Others were being feasted on by swarms of flies. The strong odor remained.

Devereaux was back there with his son picking up giant trash bags full of fish that he would later deliver to the town’s compost pile.

QUESTIONS OVER LACK OF STATE HELP

Strasburger, the retired pastor, was pleased with the efforts of Devereaux and the many volunteers, but he doesn’t understand why the state hasn’t offered to help. He said he planned to bring his concerns to the Brunswick Town Council on Monday night and that he was spending his day encouraging other coastal residents to join him.

“This is the state’s jurisdiction and it seems like they just don’t care,” he said. “There hasn’t been anyone out here other than the locals.”

Strasburger also said he doesn’t know why there was such a delay in releasing information to the public. The dead fish were released June 6, according to the state, and they started showing up on shore less than a week later.

Cloutier said he could not answer whether the state has jurisdiction or was in some way responsible for the cleanup. The Department of Marine Resources commissioner did not respond to a message left for him Monday.

Most of the houses overlooking Middle Bay, including Strasburger’s, are in the affluent Pennelville neighborhood of Brunswick. The fish washed ashore from Paul’s Marina, near the end of Mere Point, to Barnes Point, down a separate peninsula known as Harpswell Neck.

Strasburger wasn’t the only one who complained. In fact, it wasn’t until numerous complaints came in that Devereaux was sent out to clean up the mess.

Devereaux said that after Monday, he planned to let “mother nature take care of the rest.” But he said he understood the concerns about quality of life from neighbors, joking that it would take days before he stopped smelling like dead fish.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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