FOLLY BEACH -- Hundreds of thousands of dead menhaden littered the sand here Thursday, stretching in either direction from the Folly Pier in a line along the tide wash as far as could be seen. Blackbirds and grackles were picking at them.
The bait fish appear to have been killed by the cold. State wildlife biologists who responded to the kill found the menhaden had been otherwise healthy, said Phil Maier, coastal reserves director with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Officials at other nearby beaches had no reports of fish kills there.
The die-off follows the discovery of thousands of dead starfish on Isle of Palms in December amid a growing list of sea life trauma caused by unusually cold sea temperatures. The cold has wildlife officials alarmed for food and game fish, such as shrimp, sea trout and red drum. Isolated reports of lethargic and dead trout and drum have been coming in to the DNR, Maier said.
"We certainly are nearing temperatures where we're concerned about shrimp too," he said.
The situation isn't about to get any better. More cold air is expected over the next three or four weeks, said Mark Malsick, S.C. Climate Office severe weather liaison. Another cold winter rain is forecast to move into the state Monday morning. The National Weather Service, Charleston, is predicting a chance of snow flurries Sunday and Monday night as far toward the coast as Summerville.
The cold up and down the East Coast has already caused a massive fish kill in Maryland and a number of stunned sea turtles being treated locally at the S.C. Aquarium's turtle hospital.
Menhaden are smaller bait fish that travel in large schools, and tend to move farther south as waters cool. They swim shallower than other fish, and can be more susceptible to cold patches of water. The number found dead isn't so startling because the schools tend to be massive.
In Maryland, officials are investigating the die-off of about 2 million spot fish, CNN reported. Like menhaden, spots are smaller bait fish. Cold water also is the suspected cause of those deaths.
At Folly Beach on Thursday, Jennifer and Dan Berei of Charlotte were celebrating their first anniversary when Jennifer saw gleams along the tide line and went down to collect what she thought might be shells.
"We were like, 'Wow,'" she said. "Just that little pile right there looks to be thousands of them. It's amazing. Crazy."
Shrimp and other marine life can die off in mass kills when water temperatures hover in the mid-40s for any length of time. The starfish died because the surf chilled to those temperatures after frigid weather earlier in December.
Along with the starfish, DNR biologists heard reports of stunned red drum and sea trout, and weakened or dead shrimp turning up in crabbers' traps. They shut down commercial shrimping early to keep a bigger supply of overwintering shrimp out there.
Temperatures offshore and in Charleston Harbor on Thursday were in the upper 40s.
In the winter of 2000-01, prolonged water temperatures at about 46 degrees destroyed an estimated 97 percent to 99 percent of the shrimp population, and shrimpers qualified for federal disaster assistance. It took two seasons for the shrimp to recover fully, and five seasons for sea trout.
On Thursday, the scene at Folly Beach was incongruous, the seas shining in a muted sun and menhaden carcasses shining a path along the sand. The Bereis didn't let it bother them. They held hands and started off down the beach.
"I figured it was because of the cold," Dan Berei said. "It happens. That's nature."
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.