Infection killing bass in Juniata, Susquehanna

By Jeff

Harrisburg — Ironically, the same very hot, dry weather that
finally made the Susquehanna River wadeable for bass fishermen
after two frustrating years of extremely high flows, may have
created conditions that have resulted in a significant die-off of

Biologists at the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission
confirmed the bass-mortality event during the agency’s quarterly
meeting in mid-July in response to complaints by fishermen
attending the session. “Something is seriously wrong with the
Susquehanna River,” said Fred Bohls, representing the Coalition of
Concerned Anglers of Pennsylvania and the Cumberland Valley Chapter
of Trout Unlimited. “Fishermen have seen lots of dead bass with
sores on their bodies.”

Commission biologist Andy Shields, chief of fish production
services, identified the malady affecting Susquehanna bass as
columnaris, a “secondary” infection resulting from bass being
stressed by other factors such as unusually high water temperatures
or pollution.

“But the fact that it is only affecting one species indicates
that it is not caused by a pollution event,” said Leroy Young,
chief of the commission’s fisheries management unit, who pointed
out that bass with the columnaris infection also have been seen in
the Juniata River as far upstream as Lewistown. Commission
biologists initially said they had not seen bass with columnaris in
the Susquehanna above the mouth of the Juniata, but later said
infected bass were seen as far upstream as the West branch and
several northern tributaries..

But at least one veteran river watcher, Bob Clouser, of
Middletown, — who has guided bass fishermen on the river for 20
years and has fished for bass on the Susquehanna for 50 years
–believes the fish kills points to a serious long-term pollution
problem. “What I am seeing is that we are losing everything in the
river — it’s not just the bass,” he said.

“We used to have an abundance of game fish. But the crappies
have disappeared — I haven’t seen a crappie in five years. The
rock bass are mostly gone. Even the carp and catfish are suffering.
The whole system is going downhill. It looks like it’s collapsed
similar to the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.”

Clouser bristled at the suggestion that the problems with the
river are strictly due to the hot weather and low-water conditions.
“The guys at the Fish & Boat Commission are acting like this
will just get better on its own,” Clouser said. “If they don’t
think they have a serious problem, they ought to go work for
somebody else. The fact is, that all the untreated sewage and
agricultural pollution entering the river is catching up to us.
We’re about to lose a $500 million annual fishery.”

The conservation group American Rivers this year called the
Susquehanna the nation’s most endangered river due to unabated
municipal and agricultural pollution, and Clouser contends that the
effects of the pollution on what was once considered one of the
planet’s best smallmouth fisheries are obvious. “There’s a point
where it is just too much — years of spreading hog and chicken
manure in the watershed has pushed the river over the edge,” he

“The bottom line is, it must be cleaned up. Except in the
fastest water, you cannot find a clean rock in the river — the
rocks are covered by a green blanket of slime and the algae is
everywhere. On the west side you can see chartreuse, gumball-sized
chunks of algae floating.”

Clouser believes the past two years of extremely high flows from
the wet weather washed all sorts of poisons into the river and that
their impact is only now being felt with the low water conditions.
“The Susquehanna River is in serious trouble, and if they don’t do
something soon we are going to lose a lot of fishing businesses,”
Clouser said. “I don’t have any answers, but the commission

Shields noted that smallmouth mortality after spawning is not
unusual, but young bass succumbing to columnaris is. “Every five
years or so when a cold front hits at the time the smallmouth bass
are spawning in the river, they get beat up on the rocks, and we
see mortality of 10- to 12-inch male bass,” he said. “But I have
never before seen mortality affect only young-of-the-year
smallmouths like this.”

Fish & Boat Commissioner Bill Sabatose asked Doug Austen,
commission executive director, to work with the Department of
Environmental Protection to rule out pollution. Shields noted that
it is difficult to prove pollution days or weeks after it may have
occurred. “The low-water conditions we have experienced this summer
are conducive to producing lots of small fish,” he said. “The last
couple years we have had poor survival of young bass in the
Susquehanna due to extremely high flows devastating the year

Young noted that commission biologists have begun their annual
surveys of young-of-the-year bass in the river. “Of the samples
taken in mid-July — hundreds of fish,” Young said, “half of the
little bass had visible lesions caused by columnaris.”

Sometimes called cotton-mouth or mouth fungus, columnaris is
sometimes seen in crowded hatchery situations, said Shields. Often
mistaken for a fungal infection because of its mold-like lesions,
columnaris is a common bacterial infection.

Biologists say the bacteria that cause columnaris are found in
soils around rivers such as the Susquehanna all the time, but they
only seem to infect fish that have been stressed by such conditions
as poor water quality or uncommonly high water temperatures for
prolonged periods.

“Of course the bass have bacterial infections — you would too
if you lived in a hog pen,” said Clouser. “Some of the young people
at the commission try to tell us that it is the weather conditions.
But we have seen high water and the droughts before. It is a
pollution problem, and I believe it is more serious than they
think. The river is not what it was 25 years ago.”

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