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Saturday
Apr162016

Troubled Waters Need More Volunteer Monitoring

Based on an analysis, the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA) says that states are effectively monitoring water quality in just 2 percent of  rivers and streams nationwide.  Even more troubling, it adds, 55 percent of those tested are not deemed safe for designated uses such as swimming, fishing, and drinking water sources, according to state reports to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“There is an alarming lack of timely information about water quality in this country,” said IWLA Executive Board Chair Jodi Arndt Labs. “Every morning, you can read about that day’s air quality in the local paper or on your smart phone. Yet information about the health of local streams is 5 to 10 years old. That’s a problem.”

IWLA also reports the following:

  • Pollutants in these waters include a laundry list of bacteria, carcinogens, and nutrients.
  • Testing sites are often randomly located and limited in number, and most information about water quality in streams is 5 to 10 years old.
  • More than half of all states (26) received D or F grades for the overall effectiveness of the state’s stream monitoring efforts.

For the full report, go here.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 requires states to monitor the safety of all waterways, report water quality information publicly every two years, and address pollution problems. However, states vary widely in virtually every aspect of water quality monitoring, including standards used to assess water quality; where, when, and which waters are tested; the types of tests performed; and how states provide information to the public.

IWLA found that many states have weak water quality standards that can inflate the number of waters rated clean and healthy and most states don’t monitor water quality often enough to make accurate statewide safety claims.

“The solution to ensuring the public has accurate, timely, and local information about stream health isn’t a mystery,” said Scott Kovarovics, IWLA executive director. “Across the country today, League chapters and networks of citizen monitors are already doing great work. Volunteers could regularly monitor water quality in thousands more streams and provide timely results to their neighbors and state governments. The League is committed to achieving this goal by getting more citizens involved in stream monitoring nationwide.”

IWLA provides free tools, including training videos, data forms, equipment lists, and a new biological monitoring mobile app, to help volunteers get started with water quality monitoring. They're available here.

Thursday
Apr142016

As Expected, Washington Joins Oregon in Removing Limits on Bass in Columbia

As expected Washington state joined Oregon in removing limits on bass, walleye, and catfish in the boundary waters portion of the Columbia River.

Inexplicitly, though, the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) did not mention the measure in the regulation changes endorsed by the Washington Wildlife Commission (WWC). And because it wasn't listed as approved, bass anglers and others mistakenly believed that the commissioners had declined to approve it.

"This whole business gave me a day of hope," said Lonnie Johnson, Oregon B.A.S.S. Nation conservation director. "Unfortunately it was just a pipe dream."

One publication even praised the WWC for refusing to "jump on the band wagon and follow Oregon's fuzzily thought-out elimination of daily bag limits . . . "

But upon investigation, B.A.S.S. Times discovered that the commissioners did approve the DFW recommendation. It becomes effective July 1.

"Unfortunately, we didn't do a very good job of publicizing it, so I can understand the confusion," said a public affairs spokesman for the agency. "We should have included it in the news release."

The commission received 23 written comments in favor of removing limits on the non-native species that have been in the Columbia for more than a century,  but just 12 from those opposed to the measure.

As salmon and steelhead fisheries have diminished over the years because of habitat loss and altered flows, warmwater species have flourished, especially in the impounded waters behind hydroelectric dams. Although evidence indicates predation by these non-native species has contributed little to this decline, an anti-bass bias has persisted. And in recent years, the federal government joined in putting pressure on both Oregon and Washington to remove limits, despite a lack of science to support the move.

Bass anglers, meanwhile, argue that they also finance fisheries management by buying fishing licenses and that this strategy shows disregard for them as a constituency and will do little to diminish the smallmouth population of the Columbia River. Most of them will continue to practice catch and release.

Tuesday
Apr122016

Potomac, Chesapeake Bay Fisheries Face Threats on Several Fronts

 With the second largest drainage, the Potomac River is but a part  of Chesapeake Bay. In terms of largemouth bass, however, it is the heart of this massive estuary, as well as Maryland's most popular fishery.

And in recent years, it hasn't been beating as strong and vibrantly as once it did, mirroring the findings of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBN) in its biennial State of the Bay Report for 2014. It rated the Bay's overall health as D+ and noted that fisheries, which include striped bass, blue crab, oysters, and American shad, are "a concern."

"The bass fishery (in Potomac River) is not in great shape,  and not as good a shape as it has been in the past 15 years," said Joe Love, tidal bass manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR).

"We've seen a decline both in numbers and in the weights in tournaments," he added. "And electrofishing fishing numbers have been down during the past four years."

On the positive side, the river has seen a rise in recruitment recently, possibly tied to resurgence of grasses, the biologist noted.

That too mirrors findings by CBN, which noted that underwater grasses increased roughly 24 percent from 2012 to 2013 and "this recovery appears to have continued into 2014. In addition, many of the observed beds are dense and healthy, also a positive sign for recovery."

Polluted runoff from agricultural lands and urbanized areas, though, still is a significant concern, with the foundation noting no diminishment of nitrogen and toxins flowing into the Bay and only a slight decrease in phosphorus. In fact, nutrient runoff  fed the algal bloom that MDNR says was responsible for killing 200,000 bass and other fish in the Middle River on the Upper Bay last November.

For the Potomac, meanwhile,  anglers and others who love the river fear toxins from a power plant will do irreparable harm to bass and other aquatic life if discharge is allowed by Virginia.

Coal Ash Controversy

Those poisons could be introduced as permitted discharge from slurry ponds at Dominion Virginia Power's Possum Point Plant, situated on a peninsula between the Potomac and Quantico Creek. The facility burned coal from 1955 to 2003, before switching to natural gas, with ash from the process stored in five ponds that now hold more than a billion gallons of toxic coal ash and contaminated water.

In 2014, Potomac Riverkeeper Network reported, it discovered "that all five ponds at Possum Point were seeping directly into the creek or leaching coal ash waste into local groundwater . . ." And it gets worse.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality recently issued a permit allowing for the dilution and legal discharge of coal ash water, which typically contains a variety of metals that are toxic at high levels, including lead, chromium, selenium, and vanadium, as well as arsenic.

In response, the state of Maryland has filed an appeal, calling for an official review of the decision by the Virginia Circuit Court in Richmond. The Maryland and Virginia B.A.S.S. Nations also oppose the permit, as do other sportsmen and environmental groups.

"This is a real demon for us to deal with, both the process and the outcome," said Marty Gary, executive secretary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. "This is a really sensitive area for bass. Arkendale Flats and Mattawoman Creek are there. And its right in the middle of the striped bass spawning reach.

"Our issue is the uncertainty and the risk to both aquatic resources and human health."

Hardened Shorelines

The largest tributary on the Maryland side, Mattawoman Creek also is one of the more productive and popular portions of the Potomac, as well as one of the most threatened.

"It's an important ecological system  in terms of grass, diversity, decent water quality, and coves for spawning," said Love.  "It's also enjoyed by a lot of user groups."

And it's also one of the areas around Chesapeake Bay most in demand for construction of homes, offices, marinas, and bike paths. With them would come hardening of the shorelines with walls to protect from erosion and rising water levels.  In rivers of the Upper Bay, such as Severn, Magothy, and Middle, where this has been going on for decades, fish and other aquatic life have suffered. Studies show beneficial grasses diminish along such shorelines. And impervious surfaces increase runoff of both nutrients and toxic pollutants. Some of those nutrients combined with unusually warm waters to cause the massive kill on the Middle River, according to MDNR investigators, although some anglers suspect poisonous chemicals might also have been a factor.  

"Some of those rivers have 18 to 23 percent impervious surfaces," Gary said. "That means a lot of pollutants are running in, along with sediment.

"Mattawoman didn't have that for years, but now, despite efforts to control the growth, impervious surfaces have crept up to 7 or 8 percent."

Susquehanna Contaminants

The Susquehanna River, the largest drainage, also  is sending a witch's brew of chemicals into Chesapeake Bay. Flowing in mostly off agricultural lands, they  are the same pollutants that have contributed to a dramatic decline in the smallmouth population of that once world-class fishery.

But the dams on that river could be helping diminish their impacts, according to Love, who cautioned that he's just making an educated guess. "Because it's heavily dammed, that river gets periodically flushed. It's not a continuous feed," he said, suggesting that the intense flow could push the contaminants quickly through the system.

He added that the growing problem of intersex bass is not being investigated in the Bay, as it is in the river, both because smallmouths seem more at risk, thus far, than largemouths and funding for such research isn't available. 

Sinking a reef ball for Smoots Bay reef project

But the Good News Is . . .

The bass fisheries of Chesapeake Bay in general and the Potomac River specifically are part of a highly dynamic system by virtue of the tidal component. Thus far, they have proven resilient, as productivity has ebbed and flowed, much like the tides. Grass abundance, turbidity, water quality, and salinity all vary from year to year depending on environmental conditions.

"And you can't control mother nature," Gary said.

Additionally, Love and MDNR are responding to angler  concerns about how to sustain the fishery in the face of development, pollution and increasing angling pressure. For example, the agency is considering adding six tidal catch-and-return areas. And it is revamping its permitting system for tournaments, with an emphasis on improving fish care.

Echoing Gary, the Maryland tidal bass manager added, "But we have less control of reproduction."

Still efforts are being made. With the help of the Maryland B.A.S.S. Nation (MBN), the Middle River will be restocked with bass, since the area has limited spawning habitat and bass typically don't migrate into such waters. Additionally, MDNR and MBN are building the first tidal reef for bass in Smoots Bay, near National Harbor.

"This once was a prime spawning area, but not anymore," Love said. "We're hoping that this will help.

They will sink large trees, as well as concrete reef balls, which have proven successful for attracting marine species, in 4 to 6 feet of water, aiming to improve reproduction, as well as attract fish for anglers.

Sunday
Apr102016

FWC Simplifies Bass Creel Regulations for Florida

Bass regulations in Florida will be simpler, effective July 1. Most importantly, the statewide limit remains at five, but with no minimum length for largemouths and only one fish of 16 inches or longer allowed.

“The intent is to simplify existing rules and increase abundance of larger bass statewide,” said fisheries chief Tom Champeau.

"Anglers are practicing voluntary catch-and-release at record levels," added the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). "While reduced harvest of large bass is beneficial, allowing more bass under 16 inches to be kept may improve some fisheries by reducing competition so other individuals grow faster and larger."

The new regulations will replace a three-zone system for size limits, as well as 42 site-specific regulations.

Under the new rules, those five bass can be any combination of largemouth, spotted, shoal, Suwannee, and Choctaw bass. But for the latter four, the 12-inch minimum remains in effect. Additionally, a catch-and-release-only zone has been established for shoal bass in the Chipola River.

The tournament permit program will continue to allow anglers temporary possession of five bass of any size.  "This successful program has been in place for over 20 years and allows delayed-release bass tournaments to remain viable, but requires proper care, handling, and release of all bass caught during the tournament," FWC said.

The agency will publicize the changes in its new regulations summary, as well as online, on signs at boat ramps and fish management area kiosks, and at local bait and tackle stores. "The FWC will monitor the results, but anticipates the simplification will make it easier for anglers, while resulting in more bass longer than 16 inches being caught and released routinely by anglers in the future," it said.

Tuesday
Apr052016

War on Bass Is Spreading

If you fish for bass outside the Midwest and Southeast, chances are that you are catching "non-native" fish.

"So what?" you ask. I'll tell you.

In the wake of the state of Washington joining Oregon to remove limits on bass on the Columbia River, Congress has just painted a big, red bull's eye on North America's most popular game fish outside its native range. Since it has established populations in 49 states, that covers a broad area--- including Texas.

Following a hearing entitled “The Costly Impacts of Predation and Conflicting Federal Statutes on Native and Endangered Fish Species" in Washington, D.C., you can bet  that environmental groups across the country also will look to portray non-native fish in general, and black bass specifically, as Public Enemy No. 1 in issues related to protection of native aquatic species. It's the old "monkey see, monkey do" corollary.

To put it mildly, B.A.S.S. Conservation Director Gene Gilliland was irate in the aftermath, pointing out that those chosen to testify clearly favored "the native species crowd."

An "expert" who received the most speaking time said,  "Bass species are good for the sole purpose of sportfishing and this isn't a good reason to keep them around," according to Melanie Sturm of the American Sportfishing Association.

Additionally, Will Stelle from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration (NOAA)  proved be a "strong proponent that predators (sea lions and birds, along with non-native fish) are a huge problem," Sturm said. She added that Stelle argued "control programs should swiftly be implemented and NOAA welcomes legislation to do that."

And here's the exclamation point: "A lobbyist for ASA talked to Pelosi (House Minority Leader Nancy) face-to-face and she told him these non-native fish have got to go . . . Period," Gilliland said.

In the real world, meanwhile, the black bass'  only crime is its adaptability. But its high profile makes it a convenient scapegoat for opportunistic politicians catering to frustrated native fish advocates and a multitude of other interests who demand that something--- anything--- be done to stop the demise of native species and/or deal with complicated water management issues.

For years, Ground Zero for this issue has been the West Coast. But the groundwork was laid decades before, when the needs of salmon were given little consideration as more and more water was diverted from the California Delta to irrigate farm fields and supply cities and as the Columbia and other Northwest rivers were dammed for hydropower and irrigation.

Additionally, bass and other warmwater species were stocked by both the states and federal government, and, as they thrived, salmon declined. Today, an argument actually could be made that salmon  are the non-natives in these highly altered systems, which more closely resemble the warm waters and lake environments where bass evolved.

Do bass prey on young salmon? Yes, they do, but the numbers are insignificant in the "big picture" of declining salmon stocks. Study after study shows it. And they do so only because altered ecosystems facilitate the predation.

"I suppose the numbers can say whatever you want them to say if you put on your 'bias pants' when you go to work," said Lonnie Johnson, conservation director for the Oregon B.A.S.S. Nation. "Is there predation. Yes. Is it significant? Highly questionable."

Those in Congress who now want to wage war against bass in a futile attempt to bring back salmon would be well advised to acquaint themselves with Peter Moyle, a professor in the University of California- Davis’s Wildlife Fish and Conservation Biology Department and an honest broker on this issue.

"The historic Delta ecosystem cannot be restored," he said. "The Delta of today bears almost no resemblance to the Delta of 100 years ago. . .  Only three percent of the historical wetland acreage exists today. About the only familiar features would be the main sloughs and river channels, and even they have high levees on both sides."

Although specific alterations are different, the same is true for the Columbia and other rivers of the Northwest.

Preserving native species requires intensive management of human-dominated ecosystems  that contain a mixture of native and non-native species, Moyle added. "We humans decide by our actions which of these species are desirable and worth preserving often without making a conscious choice.qqq"

That's exactly what happened during the early 20th century, when governments and developers decided irrigation, water supply, and hydropower were more important than healthy salmon runs.

But that won't stop the bass blame-game by native fish and environmental groups and the politicians who are all too eager to curry their favor.

(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)