Clean-up crew members work together to dispose of the dead fish in Lake Merritt as a result of the recent algae bloom. Credit: Ricky Rodas

In some ways, Thursday morning was like any other day at Lake Merritt: runners raced laps around the 3.2-mile footpath while couples walked hand-in-hand past glassy water reflecting the downtown skyline. 

But the last week has been anything but ordinary at the lake. Clean-up crews arrived for their second day of labor as the pungent aroma of rotting fish and algae filled the air for miles around. 

“They have face masks on but it doesn’t completely stop that strong smell,” Alejandro Barajas, a crew foreman said about his team.

Yesterday, workers contracted by the city began disposing of tens of thousands of fish killed by a weeks-long “red tide” event caused by marine algae that have affected waterways throughout San Francisco Bay, including the Berkeley Marina where ravenous seagulls feasted on piles of dead mussels. Researchers are studying the conditions at the lake and beyond to understand the full extent of this massive die-off, and what, if anything, can be done to stop a further die-off. 

“I’m very familiar with red tide but had no idea it would be this catastrophic and it’s heartbreaking to see so many dead fish,” said James Robinson, the executive director of Lake Merritt Institute. The non-profit organization partners with volunteer groups and Oakland schools to clean up Lake Merritt’s shoreline and creeks on a weekly basis. Robinson said volunteers went out Wednesday to assist with the clean-up, but focused on removing debris and waste and left the disposal of dead fish to the city-contracted crews. “On our part, we’re trying to remove as much plastic and waste products from the lake to reduce the demand for oxygen, which is part of the process when something is decomposing,” he said.

Crew members, dressed in white hazmat suits, orange vests, and two layers of thick blue gloves, removed over 1,200 pounds of dead fish Wednesday and continued the task around 8:30 a.m this morning. 

“We’re probably going to keep going for about 10 hours, with breaks in between,” Barajas said. 

Working in pairs, some crew members held durable transparent bags while others filled them with tons of sunbaked fish carcasses. The bags are placed into a larger red sack labeled “biohazard.” These sacks are stuffed into 55-gallon biohazard drums and sent to a facility in Hayward to incinerate. 

The work is strenuous, but Barajas believes he and his crew are trained to handle the clean-up properly. Still, the smell becomes more pronounced as the day grows hotter and that takes its toll. 

“I had two of my guys throw up the other day,” he said. In the four years he’s been doing this kind of cleanup work, Barajas said he hasn’t experienced anything else of this magnitude. “It’s the worse I’ve seen.” 

Dead fish still line Lake Merritt’s scenic shore. Credit: Ricky Rodas

Sean Maher, the spokesperson for Oakland’s department of public works, told The Oaklandside that crews would be out at the lake for as long as needed to clean up before this weekend’s heat wave

“The scale of this fish die-off is larger than anything we’ve had in recent years,” Maher said, “so we will get as much done as we can today, and if we need to come back tomorrow we will.” 

East Oakland native Josh Stokes and his friend David Alejo watched one of the crews work near Athol Plaza. 

“My first thought when I saw all the dead fish was, ‘Oh shit, this is crazy,’” said Alejo, who was visiting from San Jose. 

Stokes said he was shocked to see Lake Merritt in this state because he grew up hanging out at the lake during his high school days. He is now an artist and painted a landscape portrait of the lake six months ago. 

“It’s a hard contrast because you’ve got the beauty of the lake and then you got all the death around you.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.