Hundreds of fish beach themselves at Nauset Beach

New England Aquarium: Predatory fish the likely cause
Nauset Beach in Orleans was the site of an interesting natural phenomenon Tuesday morning. Photo by John Fitts.

Tuesday morning, beachgoers at Nauset Beach in Orleans witnessed a strange, but not uncommon phenomenon when hundreds of fish beached themselves. According to a New England Aquarium (NEA) release, the 10"-15" fish, mostly alive and robust, were Atlantic menhaden. 

The fish, according to witnesses, were actually jumping out of the water onto the shore.

NEA biologists said although this type of behavior is not often seen by people, it is not uncommon. But what would cause seemingly healthy fish to dive onto the shore? Predatory fish are the likely culprit, the release said.

Large schools of menhaden, a type of herring, have been seen by shark researchers off the Atlantic side of the Outer Cape this summer, according to the release. On the beach, witnesses reported seeing fish that feed on the menhaden--blue fish and striped bass--in the water. The blues and stripers, both medium-sized predatory fish, migrate to the Cape's waters in the summer to feed on smaller fish such as the menhaden.

Biologists said blues actually work together, trapping schools of menhaden against a shoreline, a possible scenario that occurred at the Orleans beach.

Although it looks dire, the menhaden jump out of the water onto the shore in an effort to avoid attack. "What appears to be a suicidal act to people, actually might offer a slim but better chance at survival as an incoming tide, the next lapping wave and some flopping around might eventually get the fish back into the water after the predator has departed," the release said.

"This at first sad-looking event is actually a spectacular natural drama in a densely populated seaside tourist destination," the release said. "What it also speaks to is that New Englanders should not take for granted the wonders of the ocean environment at their doorstep, and that millions of tourists come here to see and enjoy."

Menhaden or pogies, according to NEA, are a foundation fish species on the marine food chain. In addition to blues and stripers, they are also eaten by sharks, tuna, whales, seals and seabirds during the summer in New England.


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