PF&BC announces major Susquehanna River probe

Harrisburg – With no smoking gun to point to for the die-off of
young smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River in the summers of
2005 and 2007, nor for what appears to be an ongoing decline from
the river’s former status as a world-class fishery, the
Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission is ratcheting up its
investigation of the problem.

The commission is teaming with the U.S. Geological Survey for
intensified monitoring of water temperature, dissolved oxygen and
nutrient load in the Susquehanna.

The two-year, $372,000 study also will make comparisons with
conditions in the Delaware and Allegheny rivers, where the die-offs
did not occur.

Investigators also will evaluate water quality of the
microhabitats in the river most critical to young bass and try to
determine if those conditions are different from conditions in
mid-channel, where most previous measurements have been taken.

While a number of impacts on the Susquehanna may be playing a
part in the situation, none of a plethora of agencies and
organizations looking at the problem have been able to draw
definitive lines of cause and effect.

In both 2005 and 2007, the dead fish were infected with a
bacterial disease known as Columnaris, but it’s not demonstrated
whether the infections were opportunistic attacks on already
stressed fish or the primary cause of the die-offs.

Fingers have been pointed at many other possibilities.

The Susquehanna experienced low-water conditions in 2005 and
2007, but also had experienced low-water conditions previously
without the same impact, said John Arway, chief of environmental
services for the Fish & Boat Commission. “There’s really no
pattern that was unusual in 2005 or 2007.”

In addition, he said, “when you look at the historical record,
(river water) temperature doesn’t look like it’s changing very
much.”

And, samples of fish tissue from 1998 through 2006 didn’t
reflect “anything abnormal” for toxic levels.

Something new might have been the large areas of algae bloom
that grew in some areas of the river last summer. However, many of
those blooms appear to have grown well after the die-off period for
the young bass.

Incidents of critical levels of phosphorus in the river also
have increased in the past few years and “we typically don’t see
that in flowing waters,” said Arway.

Depending upon availability of federal funds, the USGS has
committed to paying $50,000 of the study.

The Pennsylvania Board of Fish & Boat Commissioners on Jan.
30 authorized the commission to kick in as much as $200,000, hoping
other funding sources also can be tapped.

Noting that there is no guarantee that the killer conditions
will surface again in 2008, board President Bill Sabatose
commented, “We ought to be ready to go into this for the long
haul.”

Commissioner Bill Worobec asked if the study would produce data
of “sufficient quality and quantity that will stand up to
challenges.”

Arway assured him that it would, stressing, “This proposal takes
us to the next step.”

In addition to the major new study, the commission will launch a
Susquehanna angler hotline this year “to get reports filtering back
from the public, when they see bass dying.”

In related action, commissioners voted to prohibit bass fishing
tournaments on the Susquehanna River that permit the killing of
fish.

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