PA: No-kill bass regs put on Susquehanna

Williamsport, Pa. – In a move that some viewed as more symbolic
than biologic, Pennsylvania Fish & Boat commissioners voted to
slap no-kill bass-fishing rules on long sections of the Susquehanna
and Juniata rivers in the face of a continuing collapse of their
once-celebrated smallmouth populations.

In an early October meeting here, commissioners underscored the
urgency of their decision by authorizing agency Executive Director
John Arway to make a temporary emergency declaration to limit bass
fishing to only catch and immediate release on 130 miles of
river.

Arway’s emergency order allows the change to take effect Jan. 1,
2011 – much sooner than if the new regulation had to proceed along
the customary course for adoption, waiting for a public-comment
period, a second approval vote by commissioners and then published
in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

The regulations will apply to approximately 32 miles of the
Juniata River, from the State Route 75 Bridge at Port Royal in
Juniata County downstream to the mouth of the river at Duncannon,
Perry County.

On the Susquehanna, the regulations cover 98 miles, from the
inflatable dam near Sunbury in Northumberland County downstream to
the Holtwood Dam in York County.

The regulations also will apply to tournaments, which will be
prohibited during the bass-spawning period in the spring. During
the remainder of the year, only catch-measure-immediate-release
tournaments – or so-called “golden rule” competitions – will be
permitted.

The move to protect the fisheries – which many local anglers
have been clamoring for the past few years – follows nearly a
decade of declining numbers of smallmouth bass in the Juniata and
lower Susquehanna rivers.

The rivers are suffering from a mysterious pollution problem
that seems to result from excess nutrients and toxic chemicals
carried by agricultural runoff. In addition, smallmouth numbers
have been decimated by diseases that biologists suspect result from
pollution-induced bass vulnerability.

The Fish & Boat Commission, collaborating with other state
and federal agencies, has spent $400,000 in recent years trying to
unravel the mystery of what has ruined a riverine bass fishery once
famous for its excellence.

“Reduced densities of smallmouth bass are likely to continue
until reproduction and recruitment success improves,” Arway
said.

“To preserve good-quality fishing and to protect the current
population, we determined that it is necessary to place
catch-and-release restrictions on those portions of the
rivers.”

Because the affected river sections have been for many years
managed under under the Big Bass Program, which allows the killing
of only a small number of trophy fish, some questioned whether
no-kill regulations would have much impact.

Mike Burton, District III conservation director for Pennsylvania
Bass Federation, Inc., pointed out that he respected the commission
for making a high-profile gesture, even if it would not make a
difference.

“The Susquehanna River regulation change will have little effect
on solving the problem of young-of-the-year recruitment,” he
said.

“Biologists have consistently maintained that regulations cannot
significantly reduce smallmouth problems of the Susquehanna River.
That is the main reason we oppose this proposal.”

Burton questioned whether the symbolic imposition of no-kill
rules might actually send the wrong message to the angling public.
“The intent of this regulation is to direct attention to saving
adult fish, but it draws attention away from the real issue of
young-of-the-year recruitment,” he said.

“Some people will have the misconception that these regulations
will fix the problem. When it becomes clear that the regulations
won’t improve the fishery, future trust and support may be
lost.

“Focusing on water quality and disease issues will ensure
fishery improvement in the long run,” Burton added. “Addressing the
facts will get better results than playing politics, which is only
a short-lived gain.”

But biologist Leroy Young, the commission’s director of
fisheries management, argued that the no-kill regulations make good
sense. “The rationale behind this proposal is sound,” he said.

“We need to preserve the existing population until we can figure
out this problem.

“This is the most we can do as an agency,” Young added. “We
cannot control the weather and the water conditions. Regulations
are the only direct response we can use.”

Commissioner Bob Bachman, of Lancaster County, – who has
expressed frustration that other state and federal agencies don’t
declare the Susquehanna to be an impaired waterway and aggressively
try to diagnose its pollution problem – dismissed doubts about
whether the regulations change was symbolic or biologic.

“Obviously it is both,” he said after the meeting. “We have got
to protect those big fish until we figure out what is wrong with
the river.

“Every one of them that is not killed and eaten can continue
spawning. That’s what we need right now.

“Is this move by the commissioners symbolic – of course it is.
It is a powerful message to the other agencies saying we have got
to get this river cleaned up. This is critical.”

Commissioner Len Lichvar, of Somerset County, also had no
problem with sending up a signal about the Susquehanna by slapping
on the no-kill rules.

“This sends a positive message about a negative situation,” he
said. “The real problem is the pollution, but this action is the
right thing at the right time for the right reason.”

Young, who noted that smallmouth bass can live as long as 20
years in the rivers, agreed it is imperative at this point, to
protect the big smallmouths. “There are not many of them out there
that old, but they can live that long,” he said.

“There are some big bass in the river right now, but the problem
is, there is nothing behind them.”

Rod Bates, who runs a fishing guide and outfitting business on
the Susquehanna River out of Carlisle, has been asking the
commission to impose catch-and-immediate-release regulations on the
river for years. He praised Arway for the move.

“John, we appreciate you stepping up to the plate on this,” he
said. “I know this was a tough decision.”

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