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Recent weather killing fish by the hundreds

(ran West, Beach editions)

A smelly mass of dead fish washes up on the shores of Lake Kent, victims of a long drought mixed with daytime storms.

Residents of Bay Pines Estates in unincorporated Pinellas County near Seminole noticed the change in Lake Kent on Aug. 29.

The fish were acting strange, very strange.

"You could reach down and pick them up," said Jan Liles, chairman of the subdivision's lake. "They were gasping for air."

By morning it was clear that hundreds of bass, bluegills, catfish, carp and eels had lost their battle to breathe. They had floated to the lake's surface and covered the shores. A putrid smell hung in the air.

"It's a shame," said Leslie Marucci, a resident of Bay Pines Estates just off 98th Way and 48th Ave. N for 13 years. "I have a 13-year-old son who loves to go down there and fish. I've taught my son how to catch and release."

It's been a common phenomenon this summer from Tampa and St. Petersburg to Fort Myers, and it's hitting private retention ponds and small lakes the hardest.

Those bodies of water usually aren't built for fish and they usually have few sophisticated ways of keeping them alive.

"Unfortunately, it's something Mother Nature does every year," said Jeff Willitzer, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It just seems to be more extreme this year."

A prolonged drought and afternoon showers are causing most of the water trouble. With a low water table, fish are forced to vie for less oxygen.

During the day plants take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. But when showers come and hide the sun, they use oxygen as well.

When that happens there simply isn't enough oxygen for the plants and the fish, Willitzer said.

"We have hundreds of thousands of fish killed this year over the whole region," he said.

The problem is compounded when rain washes nutrients into the ponds, lakes and rivers. Bacteria at the bottom of water start decomposing those nutrients and further deplete the oxygen supply.

"We need a tropical system to dump 6 inches of rain to put a dent into the rain deficit we've had," Willitzer said.

That's not all. The rain, he said, needs to come down at night, so it doesn't block the sun.

Until then, the residents of Bay Pines Estates are bracing themselves for another fish kill.

"It's probably going to kill off another one to two times if we don't get any rain," Liles said.