In 2005, the Susquehanna River was listed by American Bassmaster magazine as one of the top five smallmouth bass fisheries in the United States. No longer.
Young smallmouth bass have, for the past several years, been displaying spots, lesions and decreasing populations – though the problem’s severity depends on who is describing it. Some sportsmen who earn their livings guiding and supplying fisher folk on the river acknowledge the bass are in substantial decline, and what once was a world class fishery is threatened, but insist the river remains a safe waterbody for recreation and sport fishing.
Young smallmouth are experiencing a seven percent mortality, Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission Director John Arway told attendees at a Susquehanna Summit last week in Lewisburg, “The big bass are still there – the problem is, the small bass aren’t there.” (Additional remarks by Arway in video at the end of this piece.)
Meanwhile, DEP Secretary Michael Krancer recently reported to the EPA that the river is not impaired. To declare it impaired would have made the river eligible for federal research money under the Clean Water Act, but Krancer said DEP did not need the federal agency’s help figuring out any problems that might exist in the river.
Arway said the easy target for many observers is fracking, the process used to produce natural gas in the Marcellus shale. He said the spots and lesions were being seen on Susquehanna smallmouth well before Marcellus development began in earnest, and they are not being seen at all in the Allegheny River, although the western part of the state is experiencing about the same drilling pressure as the northern tier region of the Susquehanna watershed.
Referring to a recent article he had written titled “The Last Bass,” he said, “I don’t want to be the director (of Fish and Boat Commission) when the last fish is caught out of the river.”
There was a time we were told, when Grandpa passed to the great fishing hole beyond, to flush his medicines down the toilet. It turns out that is not such a great idea. Last year, I asked a DEP environmentalist why it would be illegal, environmentally, to swim in a reservoir. The answer was all the chemicals we carry around in our bodies. They ooze from our skin, and water treatment plants do not remove them before they pour from our kitchen faucets.
Years ago, we were not concerned about mercury in our tooth fillings; now we know better. And in the early part of the last century, John D. Rockefeller built an empire selling kerosene to light street lamps; the byproduct – gasoline – was dumped in the rivers.
We constantly ignore problems until there appears some economic purpose for recognition. For Rockefeller, it was electrification killing the need for kerosene, and the coming of the horseless carriage to create a demand for gasoline. For the Susquehanna River, it could be young fish dying, possibly from warmer, shallower, algae-cloaked water in the very places young smallmouth spend the formative months of their lives. Although some of those characteristics may be laid at the doorway of climate change, other, more innocuous, human contributions may have a hand, as well.
We take water from the river, use it, and put much of it back. Downstream, other customers take water from the river, use it, and put much of it back. Farther downstream …
Whether the fish kill is sourced in climate or chemical we need to find out. Declaring the river impaired would not end all recreational use, but it would make the state eligible for federal research money. We also should put more state money into funding DEP’s efforts – rather than wait to discover the smallmouth bass in the river were like canaries in a coal mine, warning us of the impending demise of an increasingly precious resource.