November 23, 2013 at 2:01 am #1145MikeKeymaster
February 28, 2006
Dead fish on Susquehanna River serves as warning signal to sportsmen
The average bass angler doesn’t need a degree in fisheries biology to
know something is terribly wrong on the Susquehanna River.
After all, a blanket of dead fish covering the water’s surface tends
to send up red flags. Fishermen and other concerned citizens have
been complaining for years about a steady erosion in the river’s
water quality. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until last summer — when a
mysterious and widespread infection killed thousands of smallmouth
bass — that the issue got the public attention it deserves.
Reports about dead and dying fish first surfaced in July, and a
Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission investigation determined the
outbreak was caused by a common soil and water bacteria known as
Flavobacterium columnare. Officials said as many as 120 miles of the
Susquehanna and Juniata rivers were affected, with 50 percent of
juvenile smallmouths killed in some areas.
Columnaris disease causes sores on the outside of affected fish. It
also can coat the gills and cause infections in internal organs. It
affects all species of freshwater fish, with mortality occurring when
water temperatures exceed 65 degrees. At the time of the outbreak,
water temperatures in many portions of the Susquehanna exceeded 80
Although the illness was identified, what caused it remains a
mystery. Columnaris usually only sickens fish that already are
compromised in some way.
Officials theorize a number of negative factors — most notably high
water temperatures, low dissolved oxygen counts and extremely low
water levels — contributed to the outbreak. However, similar
conditions existed in the Delaware and Allegheny river basins with no
reported fish kills.
The exact cause of the outbreak may never be known, but virtually
everyone agrees the Susquehanna is sick.
What remains much less clear is whether Pennsylvania’s political and
environmental leaders can muster the resources needed to cure the
The first steps toward answering that question were taken last month,
when the commission hosted its first-ever Susquehanna Smallmouth
Symposium. Speakers at the event, which attracted more than 100
concerned citizens, revealed some frightening trends.
For example, annual bass spawning surveys conducted by the commission
show that smallmouth reproduction has been below the long-term
average every year since 2000. Even more disturbing is the fact that
between 1996 and 2005, the number of adult smallmouths 12 inches or
longer declined 40 percent.
Considering that it takes five years for a bass to reach 12 inches,
and six years to reach 15 inches, it doesn’t look like things will
improve much over the next several years.
The commission’s statistics were hardly a shock to Brian Shumaker,
owner of Susquehanna River Guides in New Cumberland. Shumaker has
lived on the river most of his life and has been a professional guide
since 1993. Since that time, he has seen his clients’ average catch
rate plummet from a peak of 50-100 fish per day.
“Last year, we were averaging five to 10 fish per trip,” Shumaker
said. “If we continue to see the decline in what was once the best
smallmouth fishery in the country, they’re not going to come back.”
In addition to lower bass numbers, Shumaker has seen a rapid decline
in other species such as catfish, fallfish, carp, sunfish and rock
bass. He also said many grass beds in the river have disappeared,
while massive algae blooms that turn the water green are happening
more often and lasting longer.
As with last summer’s bacteria outbreak, there is likely no single
cause for these phenomenon. Rather, they are the combined result of
American Rivers, a non-profit conservation group, named the
Susquehanna America’s most endangered river of 2005 because
inadequate water treatment in many communities allows hundreds of
millions of gallons of human feces, industrial wastewater, storm
water and other pollutants to flow into its channel each year.
The danger lies not only in what we put into the river, but also in
what we take out.
Consumptive use of river water for power plants, public water
supplies, irrigation, manufacturing and other uses nearly doubled
from 157 million gallons per day in 1970 to 278 million gallons a day
last year. By 2025, consumptive water use is expected to climb to
356.5 million gallons per day.
As more and more water is drawn from the river channel, pollutants
and bacteria will become more concentrated in the water that remains.
And with lower and lower flows, the river also becomes much more
susceptible to solar warming — reaching dangerously high
temperatures that reduce the water’s ability to hold oxygen needed by
fish and other aquatic life.
Like canaries in a coal mine, the Susquehanna’s smallmouth are
sending us a dire warning.
Failure to heed that warning would demonstrate blatant disregard for
the environment and the well-being of future generations.
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