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Smallmouth Bass Epidemic Highlights Need for Pollution Limits in Susquehanna River

Susq_diseased_lesionsPennsylvania’s top fishing manager recently wrote an impassioned letter to the head of the state’s pollution control agency. The fish expert called for urgent state action to address wide-spread disease and death among smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River, the largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay. 

“In the autumn of 2011…these outbreaks were so severe that approximately 40 percent of the adult smallmouth bass surveyed had extensive lesions and open sores,” John A. Arway, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, wrote on April 4th to Michael Krancer, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Examples of lesions on young fish are shown in the picture above.

 “We need to move beyond research and begin some action such as (creating pollution limits for the river) before the entire fishery of the river collapses and the time for action is too late,” Arway wrote.

His concerns are not speculative. Disease among smallmouth is already taking a toll on recreational anglers and the fishing guide and tackle industry.  Yesterday, for the first time in more than a decade, Pennsylvania imposed a ban on fishing for smallmouth bass from May 1 to June 15 in much of the Susquehanna River.  In a rare move, the state outlawed even the possession of the fish. The ban is intended to protect the troubled fish during spawning season, and help the species recover.

Arway has not been alone in his appeal for action on the Susquehanna River, which has experienced fish kills in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. 

Back in August 2011, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, PennFuture, American Rivers, and Trout Unlimited also wrote to the state environmental agency, urging that much of the river be officially designated as “impaired” under the federal Clean Water Act.  Such a listing would force the creation of pollution limits for the river.  

"Large-scale disease outbreaks have plagued young...smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River," the environmental groups wrote. "The current hypothesis... contends stressful water quality conditions...are predisposing them to disease,” often from infections of columnaris bacteria, which are common in the water and sediment, the environmental groups wrote.

But so far, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has declined to act.  In a letter of response to Arway on April 16, Secretary Krancer admitted that the river is suffering from serious health problems. But Krancer said an impairment designation is not “factually or legally warranted,” according to the (Harrisburg) Patriot-News.

“We still don’t know what’s causing” the problems, a spokesman for the environmental agency told the newspaper.

But this hasn’t satisfied Arway. “When the anglers opinions line up with our scientific data, it’s pointing conclusively to me that we have an epidemic,” Arway said. “If the fish population were a human population, we’d have an epidemic.”

To prevent public health crises among humans, experts often deploy what is called the precautionary principal.  Public health doctors don’t have to wait for absolute proof before acting to stop what the evidence shows is likely to cause harm. 

The crisis in the Susquehanna River should inspire similar caution among Pennsylvania officials.   They know, for example, that nutrient pollution (phosphorus and nitrogen) from fertilizers, sewage treatment plants, and stormwater runoff causes unhealthy conditions that are likely to stress a variety of life forms, including smallmouth bass.

The closing of much of the river to smallmouth fishing should be an urgent wake-up call that the government needs to take more aggressive action now to reduce this pollution. 

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photo at top of young smallmouth bass with arrows pointing to lesions.  Courtesy of Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission)


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The problem that exists in the Susquehanna River is far more ominous than nutrient pollution. Smallmouth bass are intersexed, they are dying from opportunistic infections that suggest immune incompetence and now they are displaying abnormal collections of melanin (black pigment) which could represent cellular dysplasia (melanoma/cancer)or hormonal dysregulation of melanin deposition. These three problems suggest chemicals in the water that could present significant public health risks for people eating the fish and using the water for drinking and recreation. While nutrient pollution can indeed damage the environment, chemical endocrine disruptor pollution has greater potential consequences for public health.
The problems need immediate and aggressive evaluation and this impaired watershed needs to be cleaned up now.

William L. Yingling M.D.

You raise some excellent points, Dr. Yingling.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals are indeed a suspect in the intersex problems among the smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna and other rivers, although exactly which chemicals and what their sources are remain unclear.

The kinds of pollution limits being contemplated as part of a possible impairment listing and Clean Water Act Total Maximum Daily Load for the river typically do not include endocrine discruptors -- such as drugs or herbicides or soaps -- so perhaps an updating of the standards are needed.

Hi Tom Pelton. I need your permission to publish the above article in a book I am writing. I would appreciate it. My email is perconsignment@hotmai.com. You may see the book if you like. Thanks.

Paul Thomas

1. Publication-Bay Daily
2. Writer/Photographer-Not applicable
3. Date of publication- May 02, 2012
4. Headline/Caption- Not applicable
5. Name of publisher-Chesapeake Bay Foundation
6. Title- Smallmouth Bass Epidemic Highlights Need for Pollution Limits in Susquehanna River
7. Author- Tom Pelton
8. Print run-1,000
9. Date book will publish-2014

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