Last Monday, Jacques Peter Smart walked through the snow to a creek in downtown Bethel, a shallow tributary from Arthur Dull Lake that runs above ground between Sixth and Seventh avenues. Hundreds of dead fish were curled together at the bottom of the rust-colored creek bed, each small enough to fit in your hand.
"We're looking at a bunch of dead blackfish that washed out of Dull Lake," Smart said. "It happened over a period of three to seven days, but it kind of totally happened overnight, and we were shook by it."
There are 500 to 1,000 fish, Smart said, and he suspects some washed farther downstream as well.
Originally from Nunapitchuk, Smart studies information technology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Kuskokwim Campus. The program is a lot of work, so a few months ago, Smart and a half dozen other students started fishing the Kuskokwim together to unwind. They bait their hooks with blackfish, and they set several traps for them in Bethel's streams and lakes.
Smart started finding dead fish in his trap near Dull Lake about two or three weeks ago. Now there are hundreds and hundreds of them. He posted about the die-off on Facebook, and last week the Orutsararmiut Native Council decided to get involved.
"We haven't seen this before," said Mary Matthias, ONC's environmental coordinator. "So there's something in the water. I mean, someone's putting something in the lake."
Matthias said that the fish were most likely killed or disfigured by pollution. The culprit could be a chemical leak from a local business, an accidental spill, or run-of-the-mill littering.
"Within this past year I've seen batteries stationed right outside of the dumpster on the ground instead of getting recycled," said Matthias. She added that discarded electronics and fuel can also have this effect on animals living in the water.
Other Bethel waterways could also be polluted. Smart said that his friends are catching healthy fish in their trap near BIA Road, but Matthias said that Bethel resident Richard Robb reported catching a discolored, disfigured fish near Tundra Ridge. It was not clear if the two incidents were connected.
Of course, there's a chance that the blackfish weren't killed by pollution at all. Smart told KYUK that one of his friends reported the die off to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The agency told him that it wasn't a die-off at all. According to the Fish and Game representative, Smart said, a local fisherman forgot to check a blackfish trap and may have dumped the dead fish in Dull Lake.
To assess whether the blackfish were killed by pollution, Matthias planned to retrieve water samples from Dull Lake and send them to Anchorage or the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. for testing. She also notified the Association of Village Council Presidents of the problem and called the city's Public Works Committee to see if they could help.
For his part, Smart is looking into grants offered by Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation, which provides funding for municipalities that are trying to address water contamination and treatment. In an email exchange, spokeswoman Candice Barber said the DEC had not received any reports of an apparent die-off in Dull Lake. She declined to comment further on the incident until the DEC had more information.