For years, the smallmouth bass in the Lower Susquehanna River clearly have been sick. Fishermen are finding some of them covered in black lesions, showing signs of having both male and female anatomy or dying off too young.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has sought to have the waterway declared impaired. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week approved the state’s list of impaired waterways, which does not include the river.
“How many sick fish do we have to see in the river before we say it’s unhealthy?” asked John Arway, the commission’s executive director.
Arway says there are pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorous at play, as well as others.
“It’s human-induced. Whether it’s putting insecticides or herbicides on the land, and them getting into the river, whether it’s pharmaceuticals or birth-control chemicals coming out of sewage treatment plants,” said Arway.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Kevin Sunday said the evidence isn’t clear cut.
He said researchers recently spent 187 days on the river taking samples in an effort to better understand what’s happening.
“You might take a cross section of the river here, and on the east bank get water quality of a certain reading and on the west bank see something totally different,” said Sunday. “There’s a distinction between whether or not there’s a water quality issue and whether or not there’s a Susquehanna bass issue.”
If the river were to be deemed impaired, Sunday points out that designation comes with no guarantee of federal resources to fix the issues.
Arway says what it would do is trigger a mandatory clock to fix the river.
Harry Campbell, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for Pennsylvania, said it would also galvanize resourced to study the river further.
He said the river is a scientifically complex system.
The smallmouth bass “are sensitive to pollution, can be indicative of a canary in the coal mine,” said Campbell. “The condition of the river should be a concern for everyone because we get our drinking water from there.”
Arway said the bass are the only fish being closely tracked to be showing these symptoms. He said bass in rivers to the south have shown similar issues.
The DEP spokesman said the Susquehanna is seeing some improvement due to work on reducing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Sunday said staff have seen less nitrogen and phosphorous in the water.
“The first step is to determine if there is a connection. The second is to find out where those pollutant sources come from. And, then the third would be to figure out a path forward to cut down on those pollutants,” said Sunday.
What’s frustrated leaders of the Fish and Boat Commission is that there is clearly an issue with the fish. The commission is restricting fishing between early May and mid-June.
“I don’t want to be the director in this position when the last bass is caught out of the river,” said Arway.