Sick bass proof that Susquehanna is impaired

Tom VeneskyAfter reading the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s report on problems facing smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River, my conclusion was the same as it’s always been.

It’s the water.

Here’s a quick recap of the situation:

  • Over the last 10 years fish kills of smallmouth bass in the river have been documented. Populations have plummeted, disease has devastated young-of-year bass and adults have been found covered with black spots, sores and lesions.
  • According to the report, a parasite has been found in dead juvenile bass in the river. The parasite’s possible host is a bottom-dwelling worm that may thrive in the raised levels of phosphorous and nitrogen pollution.
  • The smallmouth bass population has collapsed in the river from Sunbury to Maryland. While the north branch hasn’t seen the same degree of devastation, dead fish and those with black spots have been found here.
  • Not surprisingly, catch rates of smallmouth bass in the river have fallen by 80 percent from 2001 to 2005 in some areas. The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission has been forced to restrict the fishery in lower reaches to catch and release only.

That’s troubling from an environmental and an economic standpoint.

Phosphorous and nitrogen pollution levels are extremely high in the areas of the river where dead and/or sick fish have been documented. That’s a correlation.

In the Susquehanna River and tributaries, average phosphorus pollution levels in 12 of 24 sites monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey between 2007 and 2011 were among the worst in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. And 11 of these 24 sites had total nitrogen pollution levels that were among the worst in the region.

Scientists link these pollution levels to an increase in the growth of parasites, along with feeding algae blooms that in turn raise pH levels and lower dissolved oxygen in the water.

Those factors can kill bass.

But if environmental reasons aren’t enough to motivate action, perhaps money is.

The report states that smallmouth bass fishing generates $630 million annually in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Additionally, smallmouth bass are responsible for $193 million annually in salaries and wages for about 5,700 people employed in fishing-related jobs and $41 million in state and local tax revenues.

That’s significant.

Recently, the state Department of Environmental Protection said it would increase efforts to study pollutants in the river, which is fine. But the agency needs to do more.

It has to declare the Susquehanna River – at the very least the lower segment – as impaired under the federal Clean Water Act. Such a move would direct more resources needed to solve and address the problem and, hopefully, save the smallmouth bass.

It’s a move that should’ve been done long ago.

For the last couple years John Arway, Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission executive director, has been pleading with DEP to list the river as impaired. The action would confirm what we all know – there is something wrong with the water.

When you have fish covered in sores and lesions, unprecedented algae blooms, skyrocketing levels of phosphorous and nitrogen and a fishery on the verge of collapse, there is only one place to look.

The water.

With the summer fishing season right around the corner, there is almost 100 miles of the lower Susquehanna River where bass season will be pretty quiet. It’s an area that was once a world-class smallmouth fishery.

The next step to prevent and remedy the situation is simple: admit that there is something wrong with the water, declare the river impaired and put more money and time toward fixing the problem.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s report is yet another plea to get this done.

Categories: Pennsylvania – Tom Venesky

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