River bass malady spreads
Lancaster, Pa. — Since 2005, the appearance of diseased, intersex smallmouth bass and sudden fish kills on the lower Susquehanna River have increasingly alarmed anyone who fishes or cares about the river.
Unfortunately, the news recently got worse.
Just ask Ephrata, Lancaster County, angler Joe Raymond, who fishes the Lower Susquehanna hard all year long.
Fishing in the warm-water discharge area near the Brunner Island power plant on the York County side of the river in December, the 28-year-old fisher caught about 15 adult smallmouths with the dreaded sores and lesions that have become so common on juvenile bass.
That’s significant because, until now, the die-offs and bacterial infections that befell stressed fish had only been observed in juvenile smallmouths, except for a few isolated adults.
“The worst were like rotting fish,” reports Raymond, who caught bass up to 18 inches exhibiting the ugly sores that come from the infection known as Columnaris.
Raymond’s catches weren’t the only evidence. During a regular Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission survey in the Accomac area farther downstream on the York County side in October, diseased adult bass also were found.
Has the disease made a dreaded jump to adult bass?
“We’re not jumping to any huge conclusions yet,” says Geoff Smith, a biologist who was brought in by the Fish & Boat Commission to study the Susquehanna River bass situation.
“Isolated as it was, it could be related to other environmental conditions.” For example, he says, the flood waters of this past fall could have washed in contaminants to a few spots.
Still, Smith says, “We’re hoping it’s an anomaly but expecting the worst.”
After Raymond sent photos of his diseased catches to the agency, an electro-shocking sampling was arranged for the Brunner Island area last month.
But water was high and only seven smallmouths were captured. None had symptoms of the infection but it was too small a sample to be of much help.
Newfound disease among what’s left of the Susquehanna's aging bass population is not the only worrisome development.
Diseased juvenile smallies are now showing up for the first time in the Delaware and Allegheny rivers, as well as such Susquehanna tributaries as the Pequea, Conodoguinet, Swatara and Sherman’s creeks.
And fisheries biologists have been stunned to discover smallmouths with sores in such supposedly high-quality streams as Pine Creek and Loyalsock Creek in the mountains of the Susquehanna’s West Branch.
“Pine Creek just doesn’t make sense,” Smith says out loud. “There are not high nutrients, not much in the way of contaminants, it’s 97 percent forested and only one sewage treatment plant.”
As if finding worsening conditions among the fish that made the Susquehanna famous wasn’t bad enough, no one at state government seems willing to declare the Susquehanna a sick river and get on with fixing it.
Certainly the Fish & Boat Commission is trying.
In January 2010, exasperated commissioners passed a resolution calling the Susquehanna “increasingly impaired” and urged state and federal regulators to find the sources of pollution and eliminate them.
The use of the words “increasingly impaired” was a direct challenge to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which, unlike the Fish & Boat Commission, has enforcement power to go after the sources. It can do so if it declares a body of water “impaired.”
But such a declaration could have far-reaching consequences and be hugely expensive.
Suppose it’s found definitively that endocrine receptors from pharmaceuticals coming through sewage treatment plants are causing the intersex problem.
Suppose, as is becoming increasingly suspected, that overloads of dissolved phosphorus primarily from farm runoff is spurring excessive algae and plant growth, causing low oxygen levels contributing to fish kills.
What is causing the warmer temperatures along the shoreline which kill smallmouth bass fingerlings? Global warming?
I think you can see the implications.
Fixing the Susquehanna has become a political hot potato that state government so far is loathe to touch.
Bob Bachman, of Lancaster County, president of the Fish & Boat Commission, is one who has clamored for the state to get on with it.
He’d like to see more anglers and boaters and river lovers writing Gov. Tom Corbett, DEP Secretary Michael Krancer and legislators, saying, “Get on with this. Fix it!”
But he knows of the political battle ahead. “Farmers and businesses don’t want to be told they are causing problems,” he says.
And he doesn’t disagree that specific causes need to be nailed down
“The question is, is it a single cause, a combination of stresses? It’s almost like Whack-A-Mole. When we focus on one thing, something else pops up.” For example, the unexpected occurrence of diseased smallmouths in supposedly unpolluted Pine Creek and the Loyalsock.
The commission’s “impaired river” gambit did bring enough pressure that a policy committee was formed, bringing together stakeholders such as the commission, DEP, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Susquehanna River Basin Commission, U.S. Geological Survey and agriculture representatives.
At their meeting in January, several studies were authorized. One would look at a virus that has caused extensive fish kills to largemouth bass in the South. Another will study parasites found in fish to see if they weaken fish and allow bacteria to take over.
A third study will try to determine if excess phosphorus in the river is a major culprit.
Bachman is buoyed by the new initiatives to zero in on a source or combination of sources of the Susquehanna’s ills.
“Persistence is the only thing that will eventually work its way out,” he says.
“We’ll find the cause and then there has to be enough will power out there.”