Hundreds of fish, eels die in Hilton Head Island lake

bheffernan@islandpacket.comMay 30, 2013 

Vultures congregate on a bank of Crystal Lake in Indigo Run on Hilton Head Island. Hundreds of dead fish and eels have washed ashore since algaecide was poured in the lake last week in an attempt to control an algae bloom.

Hundreds of dead fish and eels began washing up last week in a Hilton Head Island lake that turned milky and rancid after an attempt by Indigo Run management to curtail an algae bloom.

The smell, which one resident said was "like death," has subsided. However, the dead continued to float to the surface this week.

A "low dose" -- 15 gallons -- of a copper-based algaecide was poured into the 7.5-acre Crystal Lake last week, according to an apology letter sent to lakefront property owners from Indigo Run general manager Brad Phillips' office.

Management was warned by Quality Lakes, a lagoon maintenance contractor, that the chemical could kill the fish, according to the letter. The treatment was meant to fix discoloration and a dramatic decline in oxygen in the lake caused by the algae bloom.

Quality Lakes declined to comment on the matter on Thursday.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service responded to the incident and took water samples for testing.

Attempts Thursday to reach Indigo Run officials were unsuccessful. DHEC said in an email the low dissolved oxygen levels in the water contributed to the fish kill.

DHEC and Clemson Extension will hold a meeting with affected residents on Monday.

Phillips wrote in the letter to property owners that further treatment could not resolve or reverse the problem.

"Rather, the lake will have to heal on its own over the next several days," he wrote, adding that it would be restocked with fish after it recovers.

That offers little comfort for some lakefront property owners.

From his backyard, Mike Wilson used to watch ospreys, ibises and herons roost, but now he sees vultures. More than 30 rest in rookery limbs and along Crystal Lake, scanning for leftovers from the nearly weeklong kill.

Wilson said maintenance workers patrol the lake perimeter in the mornings to pick up the remains, but by 10:30 a.m. Thursday, the banks had at least been partially replenished with picked-over fish spines and jaws.

Wilson's girlfriend, Brenda Carman, said she enjoys sitting outside near the water most evenings; the lake was one of the main reasons they moved into the house in 2002.

But the stench lately has been intolerable. The lake, property owners and the fish would have been better off had management left the water alone, Carman said.

"Granted, there was a lot of algae in there, and it was kind of gross, but it would have worked itself out," she said.

Doing nothing and "hop(ing) the lake recovers on its own" was presented by Quality Lakes as a option for dealing with the lake's low oxygen levels, according to Phillips' letter.

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