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."
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."
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.
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.