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Something's fishy

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They lay among the shell windrows on the ocean side, dry and silvery from the sun. On the sound side where there's less wave action they seem wetter, a bit more reddish in color and still a bit bloated.

They dot the swash and in some places are mounded several deep. Most are on their side, but some are buried head first, as if diving into the sand, tails looking frozen in mid-jump.

Nobody is quite sure why hundreds of thousands of menhaden ended up in the shallow waters of the sound near Mason Inlet on the north end of Wrightsville Beach, but there is no denying that something very strange occurred. The working theory is that they got bunched up in the shallows and ran out of oxygen.

Now, with each high tide, the ocean is whittling away at the stack of fish on the beach. But in the marshy areas, where they were piled up and half-buried in a hasty job by the town to staunch the smell, the fish aren't going away fast.

The air on the shore at Wrightsville is not unlike sea air on any day except a little richer with acrid and rotting tones. But today the scent--though it's windy--is heavy with decay. And the sound in the air along with the surf is the sound of thousands of shore birds, many with bellies so full they scarcely bother to jump when the walkers pass by.

Human traffic, on the other hand, is low and has been since the waves of fish began washing up in late December, and with fewer people picking over the ocean's daily deposits, shelling is good. Surfing, however, according to the young lady behind the counter at the Internet café, is not. After having sat on their boards in waters thick with the suffocated masses, there is no hurry, she said, to head back out.

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