Neglect destroyed a world-class bass fishery at Florida's Lake Apopka. Fifty years later, is history about to repeat itself on Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River, as well as Chesapeake Bay, which it flows into?
Since 2005, anglers and fisheries biologists with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) have noted lesions and sores on smallmouth bass, as well as a declining population because of what is believed to be disease-related delayed mortality in young-of-year fish. In 2013, the Washington Post noted that Susquehanna's smallmouth bass might be the "canary in a coal mine" regarding the river's health. Last June, the U.S. Geological Survey found intersex bass, likely a consequence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, in three Pennsylvania waterways, with the highest incidence in the Susquehanna.
More recently, officials documented the first cancerous tumor. The discovery made media headlines both because of its rarity and the ominous overtones that it conveys regarding the health of this river that provides 50 percent of the fresh water flowing into Chesapeake Bay, site of a recent Elite Series tournament.
"As we continue to study the river, we find young-of-year and now adult bass with sores, lesions, and more recently a cancerous tumor, all of which continue to negatively impact population levels and recreational fishing," said John Arway, PFBC's executive director. "The weight of evidence continues to build a case that we need to take some action on behalf of the fish."
To PFBC's credit, it has been sounding the alarm about the "sick" fishery for years, as well as lobbied the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to categorize the lower portion of the river as "impaired." The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also has petitioned for that designation, as have the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited and American Rivers. Until the waterway receives that designation, a comprehensive plan can't be developed to address the problem, which probably is pollution.
But DEP has argued that it makes recommendations based on water quality and not species health. Thus far, it has refused to recommend that the Susquehanna be included on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) impaired waters list.
"Although we share the continuing concerns about the health of the smallmouth bass population, we do not have sufficient data at this time to scientifically support listing the main stem of the Susquehanna as impaired," the EPA said in a statement.
In other words, for government bureaucrats, sick fish do not equate to a sick river. Yeah, it probably was something they ate.
Prompted both by the inaction of environmental agencies and concern for the future of this world-class fishery, the PFBC recently launched a "Save Our Susquehanna!" campaign so that the smallmouth fishery doesn't die of neglect. And it's going to need your help.
Until the end of this year, PBFC expects to take in at least $3 million from sales of about 130,000 resident and non-resident fishing licenses. When it reaches that threshold, funds from additional sales will be dedicated to projects aimed at reducing pollution in areas of the river where diseased fish have been found. To kick start the effort, the agency already has pledged $50,000, and, once anglers provide a matching amount, work will begin.
Those who purchase licenses also can show their support by buying "Save Our Susquehanna!" buttons for $10 each. Both are available at PFBC's Online Shop, as well as from licensing agents around the state. Finally, people can contribute by sending checks made out to the campaign to PFBC, P.O. Box 67000, Harrisburg, PA 17106.
"Protect the waters of the river, and you protect the waters of the bay," said B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director Gene Gilliland. "Purchasing a fishing license or making an additional donation is an investment in the future of river smallmouth and Chesapeake Bay largemouth bass fisheries."
Arway added, "The Susquehanna River is sick and someone has to take steps to fix it before it is too late. We need leadership to begin working on fixing problems that we know exist."
Despite spending millions of dollars on rehabilitation projects in recent decades, Florida resource managers have been unable to restore Lake Apopka's bass fishery to what it once was. Sadly, it seems, they waited too long. Let's hope that the Susquehanna and Chesapeake Bay fisheries do not suffer similar fates.
(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)