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Volunteers Clean Up Hundreds Of Thousands Of Rotting Fish On Belmar Beach

BELMAR, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Wanted: People willing to pick up stinky dead fish for free.

The call that Belmar officials put out Thursday night on social media didn't put it that bluntly, but that was the reality 20 volunteers faced Friday morning as they turned out to help this popular tourist town clean up after a massive fish kill earlier in the week.

"I'm a beach brat,'' said Helene Cappello of Belmar. "I've been coming to this beach since I was 2. It just seems like the right thing to do.''

She was undaunted by the stench of rotting fish that had residents five blocks inland keeping their windows shut.

"I had a boat in Point Pleasant once, and we'd take people out fishing on it,'' she said. "I would bring my lunch. I'd have a liverwurst and onion sandwich in one hand, and the bait bucket in the other hand. So the smell doesn't bother me.''

Friday's cleanup came four days after a massive fish kill in the Shark River left thousands of dead moss bunker on the sand. Officials believe depleted oxygen levels killed the fish, which are also known as menhaden.

"I know how the fish got all messy and yucky and smelling horrible. There was air and there was too much fish and they all died," 5-tear-old Liam Murphy told CBS 2's Kathryn Brown.

The fish kill was a naturally occurring phenomenon, said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

On Monday, local fisherman told CBS 2′s Lou Young that they have seen this kind of thing before.

"Every 20 or 30 years you'll see something like this happen. It can be attributed to the amount of bunker in the area right now," Nick Caruso said.

"The blues and striped bass come by and chase them and they come here and run out of oxygen," fishing boat captain George Stella added.

Although an algae bloom was initially suspected, tests ruled that out as a cause, and conditions in the river are back to normal, Ragonese said. He said a helicopter fly-over along the coast on Tuesday spotted "a huge mass of millions of bunker fish for mile-upon-mile in the ocean waters.'' A huge offshoot somehow found its way to the Shark River, he said.

Victor Corallo of Belmar was one of the first to arrive for the cleanup.

"The quicker we get rid of them, the quicker they stop stinking,'' he said. "The only time I like fish is with a little garlic on 'em.''

John Maguire, Belmar's public works superintendent, handed out plastic gloves and bags to volunteers before they began collecting the dead fish, which stretch from Neptune to Belmar.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed and hoping the locusts don't come next,'' he said.

Volunteer Christine Hanley filled a few bags as she walked along the shoreline.

"It's going to be a long, long time before I eat fish again,'' she said.

Mayor Matt Doherty said that since Monday, borough work crews have removed 30 tons of dead fish from the beaches.

"You can be sure that this will all be gone by Memorial Day weekend and Belmar's beaches will be in great shape,'' he said.

More than 100 inmates were expected to aid in the cleanup over the weekend, Brown reported.

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(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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