Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission tells Department of Environmental Protection: Admit it, river impaired

Harrisburg —  John Arway has lost his patience.

The executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission insisted again recently that the state Department of Environmental Protection must designate the Susquehanna River as “impaired” and establish total maximum daily limits for pollution from runoff to correct the water-quality issues.

In a letter dated April 4 to DEP Secretary Michael Krancer, Arway called for action to save the Susquehanna River smallmouth bass fishery, which was once considered to be one of the best on the      planet.

“We still have the original problem with young-of-the-year smallmouth mortality discovered in 2005, and we are now discovering new problems for other species of fish as time goes by,” Arway wrote.

“I again request, based on the evidence of sick fish and declining fisheries, that the department list the Susquehanna River as an impaired water in order to ‘start the clock’ on remedying the water-quality problems.

“The monitoring required by the listing process would help us document and develop solutions for the water-quality issues plaguing the river, and benefit all communities and users that depend on clean water,” Arway added.

“We need to move beyond research and begin some action such as total maximum daily limits, before the entire fishery of the river collapses and the time for action is too late.”

At the Fish & Boat Commission’s quarterly meeting in mid-April, Arway expressed frustration that much of the public seems to be blaming his agency for the pollution problems plaguing the Susquehanna.

“We need to stimulate the public to focus the complaining they are doing against the commission to the people who have control of what’s going on with the river,” he told commissioners, referring to DEP.

“We have done everything we can do by putting catch-and-release regulations on and ordering ‘no fishing during the bass spawn.’ If the river were declared ‘impaired,’  it would make us eligible for federal funding to help solve the problem.”

The mysterious ailments that afflict the bass population in the river seem to be worsening.

First appearing in 2005, the earliest signs were dead and dying juvenile smallmouth bass. Many exhibited sores on their bodies.

Then it was discovered that many Susquehanna bass carried female egg cells. That so-called intersex bass phenomenon has been seen before in rivers such as the Potomac in Virginia, but it turns out the percentage of affected male bass in the Susquehanna is among the highest ever seen.

Then the gruesome sores that were found on juvenile smallmouths started turning up last year on adult bass.

And finally, strange, black spots or blotches began showing up on bass in the river. Although biologists with the commission and other fisheries-management agencies said they have seen the “melanosis” before, anglers who frequent the river report they never saw them in the Susquehanna before three years or so ago.

Now they are common,  And it worries Arway.

“That’s one of the reasons we’ve been calling for the river to be designated impaired,” he told a news reporter recently. “We don’t know why these disease conditions are occurring in the river.”
In his letter to Krancer, Arway conceded that scientist are suspicious that the black marks may be caused by some sort of insidious water pollution, such as endocrine disrupters – the same chemicals blamed for creating intersex bass.

“There is considerable speculation among fisheries researchers as to the causes of blotchy bass condition, which range from hormonal changes, possibly viral infections, and environmental conditions and other unknown stressors,” he wrote.

“Even though there is no evidence to suggest that this is  the result of either a specific or general pollution event, it has raised public awareness – in part, because it is so visibly striking and because of the well-documented ongoing smallmouth bass disease issues.”

Endocrine-disrupting compounds are emerging not only in the commonwealth but across the nation as a matter of primary concern for both fish and public health, Arway noted.

But there is insufficient information about these compounds in the Susquehanna River basin or in the other waters of our commonwealth. High levels of the compound have been found in the rivers around Pittsburgh as well, where intersex bass have also been found.

“However, wide-scale evidence of endocrine disruption exists in the smallmouth bass populations of the Susquehanna River,” Arway said.

Arway has also approached officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asking for help in reducing pollution into the Susquehanna. So far, neither EPA or the state DEP has acted on his pleas.

“I’ve got great concerns about continuing research on the river and having the last bass in hand,” he said.

“I don’t want to have smallmouth bass disappear from the river during my watch.”

Arway is hoping the economic impact the decimated Susquehanna bass fishery is having on local communities will resonate with the governor and state lawmakers enough to motivate them to get involved and force the “impaired” designation to be placed on the river.

A 2007 economic impact study of the Susquehanna River fishery, encompassing 136 miles of the Juniata and Susquehanna rivers, from Sunbury downstream to Holtwood Dam, totaled $2.37 million annually.

Although fishing for walleyes, channel and flathead catfish, and muskies is good in the river, the primary sport fishery of this reach of the Susquehanna is for smallmouth bass.

So far the mysterious diseases have not shown up in the other species.

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