Seeking Clarity: Susquehanna River pollution endangers smallmouth bass
Rod Bates can remember taking out-of-state visitors from across the country on his Lowe boat along the Susquehanna River, typically catching 50 or more smallmouth bass in a four-hour trip.
Bates, who started Koinonia Guide Service in 1999, said a guide is now lucky to get half that number during a similarly timed trip, which mostly consists of locals these days.
Recently, Bates even diversified his service to include catfishing trips — which already account for nearly 35 percent of his business — to help offset the diminishing smallmouth population that hasn't recovered from a massive fish kill that occurred in 2005.
John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said the declining health of the smallmouths is indicative of problems with the Susquehanna.
"Bass are really canaries in the coal mine," Arway said. "The bass tell us how well or poorly the river is doing."
Arway admits, though, that people who don't fish the river don't understand why it's in trouble, because the problems are mostly invisible to the naked eye.
"It looks the same as it did 10 or 20 years ago," he said. "You've got to look below the river's surface."
And what's below the river's surface is high levels of nutrient, sediment and endocrine disrupter pollution. The pollution creates hypoxic zones — areas of low oxygen concentration where fish can suffocate and die — as the nutrients aid the growth of nuisance plants such as algae, Arway said.
The endocrine disrupters — chemicals found in numerous household products that can interfere with hormonal systems — have been linked to lesions, tumors and intersex qualities in smallmouth bass, according to commission reports.
Intersex fish: The frequency and severity of intersex qualities — female traits in male bass — is very high in the Susquehanna River, according to the commission's river biologist, Geoffrey Smith.
In 2012, the commission put restrictions on fishing for smallmouth bass on 98 miles of the Susquehanna, including in York County.
Fishermen and women are only permitted to catch and release smallmouth bass year-round and can't even target the bass during a stretch of May and June. Arway said the restrictions won't be removed until the commission believes the fish are getting healthier.
"My frustration as director of the agency responsible for helping the fish in the river is we're not making progress on fixing the river," he said.
"We continue to see diseased fish (and) a depression of overall population of bass in the river."
Tumor: Late last year, while fishing on the Susquehanna, Arway's friend caught a smallmouth bass that was later confirmed to have a malignant tumor on its jaw, which he said is very rare to find on the short-lived fish.
Arway snapped a picture of the bass, and it made its way around the media outlets.
"The fish told the story for me, and now it's up to me to continue to tell it for the benefit of the fish," he said.
Arway's commission has tried yearly to convince the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to label the Susquehanna an impaired waterway, but to no avail.
Spokesman Neil Shader wrote in an email that the department is devoting "a great deal of its resources" to study the health of the river "until a well-informed scientific decision can be made."
Regardless of the distinction, Arway said his organization will begin working to make sure the river improves, focusing on improving conservation practices at farms, which accounts for a large percentage of the nutrient pollution within the watershed.
"We're going to fix the river one farm at a time," Arway said. "We've got more farmers willing to work on this; we just don't have enough money to do it."
The Fish and Boat Commission started the Save Our Susquehanna campaign to work on raising those funds and fixing the farms. Without the help, Arway fears the worst.
"We'll lose our fishery, lose the smallmouth," he said. "We'll have a river that will adapt. There will be fish in it, but it won't be the world-class fishery we once had."
— Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org.