A strange pedal boat, key to the water quality of Lake Merritt

OAKLAND (KPIX) – Lake Merritt in Oakland has been hit hard by the recent red tide algal bloom, and for days cleanup crews have been picking up dead fish along the shoreline. On Saturday, they used an unusual piece of equipment to help finish the job.

Thousands of fish of all sizes began to die in the lake, and the shore was littered with their remains. The audience’s reaction was shocked, but it quickly turned to disgust.

“It smells like a can of sardines that has been rotten…”, says Tor Camorlinda, who lives near the lake.

“It’s usually – I mean, you smell like the sea but it’s, it’s almost rancid,” hiker Tyraa Royal said.

Over the past week, city crews have been busy removing smelly fish carcasses from shore and it appears they have done an outstanding job.

To complete the cleanup, the city has called in a vessel that appears to be from a bygone era. Part pontoon boat, part paddle wheel, the odd-looking contraption circled the lake, scooping up any dead fish that floated in the water.

Rick Hutton, owner of Aquatic Harvesting, pilots the specialized skimmer. He lowers a conveyor belt into the water, usually to clear unwanted vegetation. He contracts with various lake managers along the west coast, removing decaying material from just below the surface.

“By cleaning up that water, it’s just going to make the lake a lot nicer, not just for recreation, but it’s healthier,” he explained in a video on the website. “You know, if it stays here, things start to rot and break down and it’s just going to get messy.”

The skimmer has worked in Lake Merritt before, usually removing dead plants, but on Saturday it was searching for dead fish and, as he watched from the shore, Frank Gonzales seemed fascinated by the whole process.

“I’ve seen it run many times – at different times of the day – and it picks up a lot,” he said. “And so, if they didn’t have that, I don’t know how they would get the stuff out of here. So, good job, man!”

Hutton said by early afternoon he had only found a few fish and a dead ray, so the lake might be getting closer to normal again. Some who have observed the operation of the skimmer are beginning to regard it as a tourist attraction.

“If there was something that said, ‘hey, the skimmer is here and here’s the history’– that would be super cool, you know?” said Camorlinda.

Of course, the town probably doesn’t mind giving Lake Merritt visitors something different to look at than what they saw — and smelled — last week.

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