A packed house greeted the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s recent public forum about the causes of dieseases and die-offs of smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River and other Bay tributaries.
Scientists, activists, anglers, reporters, and representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission turned out on May 8 to for the forum at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to discuss a new Chesapeake Bay Foundation report, called “Angling for Healthier Rivers.” The report describes the "perfect storm" of pollution, parasites, warming temperatures, and bacteia that are combining to kill the popular sport fish.
The state’s fisheries management agency and CBF have joined in calling on EPA to designate the Susquehanna River as “impaired” with pollution under the federal Clean Water Act, a move that would focus more attention on cleaning up the waterway. But Pennsylvania’s environmental agency has declined, saying more research is needed to determine the causes of the fish deaths. The day after the forum, EPA announced there is "insufficient water quality data to make an impairment determination."
Dr. Vicki Blazer (photo at top), a national expert on smallmouth bass and Research Fisheries Biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, presented the audience with a powerpoint showing the many factors involved in stressing the fish, including not only pollution but parasites.
"Even though these bass are only two or three years old, they are hammered with parasites,” Dr. Blazer said.
Parasites and their hosts are encouraged by excessive nutrient pollution, according to the CBF report, which features Dr. Blazer’s research and theories.
"Smallmouth bass appear to be especially sensitive (to pollution), we don't know why,” Dr. Blazer told the audience.
She added that skin discoloration –- black blotches, sometimes called "blotchy bass syndrome" -- could possibly be caused by endocrine disrupting chemicals in the Susquehanna River, such as drug or pesticides.
Dr. Blazer said that the prevalence of sexual abnormalities (also called "intersex") in smallmouth bass correlates with density of animal feeding operations and herbicide use in an area, although she added this is a correlation, not a proof of causation.
John Arway (left), the Director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, focused on the need to reduce pollution in the Susquehanna River.
"We have already learned enough about the river's problems to begin taking action,” Arway told the audience. “We do not have to wait."
He later added that reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution would not only help the waterway, but the Chesapeake: "What is good for the river is good for the Bay."
Josh Lookenbill, biologist for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said his agency had recently stepped up its efforts to monitor levels of dissolved oxygen and pH levels in the Susquehanna. “We have begun continuous monitoring,” Lookenbill told the audience.
So far, however, the agency’s data have not convinced the state that an impairment listing is warranted.
"There is some urgency to this issue,” said Geoff Smith, biologist for Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “We've seen disease prevalence (in smallmouth bass) as high as 70 percent…. We've seen a pretty steep decline in catch rates."
Smallmouth bass are not only regarded as an indicator of ecosystem health; they are also a big business. Smallmouth bass fishing is worth an estimated $630 million a year in sales of everything from fishing rods to boats across the Chesapeake Bay region states, including $117 million a year in Pennsylvania, according to the CBF report.
Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, concluded the event with a presentation that gave the big picture. He talked about how progress has been made in reducing pollution in the Bay and its tributaries over the last quarter century, but much more work is still needed. The health problems in the bass illustrate that.
“Our water reflects back to us the health and condition of how we treat the land,” Campbell said.
Several members of the audience asked questions of the expert panel. "I am concerned about the potential impact of hydraulic fracuting in the Marcellus shale," and the impact of fracking wastewater on fish in the Shenandoah River, one audience member asked.
Josh Lookenbill, biologist for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, replied: "The department has increased its effort, with its water quality (monitoring) network statewide...in streams and rivers. And we have included barium and strontium and some of the other metalloids that are typically associated with the flowback water from drilling sites....There have been a few isolated situations, normal spills and leaks, and things like that. But we have not seen any increases in trends in specific kinds" of metals that would indicate a major pollution problem from fracking wastewater, Lookenbill said.
However, the state agency's investigation of the fish deaths and the water quality problems in the Susquehanna River continues.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo from Maryland Department of Natural Resources)