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Entries in Potomac River (29)

Wednesday
Mar082017

Pollution Is Not Good, But Neither was Obama Clean Water Rule

Capt. Steve Chaconas with Potomac River bass

President Trump recently signed an Executive Order to roll back Obama's  2015 "clean water rule," which greatly expanded federal authority over public and private waters. Below is my 2014 analysis of the proposal, before it was enacted by executive fiat.

 *     *     *     *

We all live downstream.

Thus, pollution poses an exponential threat to our waters and our fisheries. And in a perfect world, no one would pollute.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

As a consequence, we pollute, sometimes unintentionally and sometimes flagrantly. Along the Potomac River, signs once warned that just touching the water could be hazardous to human health. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught fire. And Lake Erie was known as a “dead sea.” The list of waters degraded and almost destroyed by pollution is a long and shameful one.

We, however, also have learned to clean up after ourselves, prompted by the federal Clean Water Act of1972. Erie now is one of the nation’s most productive fisheries. The Potomac is nationally known for its bass fishing. And the Cuyahoga, a river once devoid of fish, now is home to 44 species. The list of waters enhanced and restored is a long and hopeful one, and we arguably do more to protect our aquatic resources than any other country in the world.

That doesn’t mean that we’ve done as much as we can or should do to minimize pollution. But neither are we living in a time when rivers are catching on fire and as much needs to be done or even can be done, for that matter.

But that doesn’t keep some from trying, especially those who believe that more big government is the solution to our imperfections. That’s why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to expand the definition of ‘waters of the United States’ to include water on private property.

Additionally, under new proposals, jurisdiction would extend to streams regardless of their size or how frequently they flow, as well as to ditches, gullies, and just about any low spot where moisture collects on a seasonal basis.

And that’s why the move is being heartily endorsed by environmental groups, who argue that court rulings have weakened the CWA.

“It’s taking the way the Clean Water Act works back, so that it works the way water works in the real world,” said Bob Wendelgass of Clean Water Action.

But just how far do you allow the federal government to intrude on the rights of private property owners? Those rights are a cornerstone of who we are as a nation and why so many from all over the world want to live here.

“The EPA’s draft water rule is a massive power grab of private property across the U.S,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith from Texas. “This could be the largest expansion of EPA regulatory authority ever.

“If the draft rule is approved, it would allow the EPA to regulate virtually every body of water in the United States, including private and public lakes, ponds, and streams.”

While I understand and even sympathize with the environmental side of this argument, I do not support such an expansion of power using regulations written by anonymous, unelected bureaucrats. Such decisions should be left up to Congress, which represents the people.

Additionally, many who want to impose ever more strict environmental regulations upon industries, agriculture, municipalities, and now private property owners do so with unrealistic expectations. In their never-ending quest for perfection, they want to reduce pollution limits to levels that can’t even be measured.

“These folks live in la-la land,” one water quality expert told me. “If you attack these things (regulations) as unrealistic, you are evil.

“What I’d really like to see is for them to sustain themselves on their own little happy ¼-acre subdivision lot. I’d be willing to bet every single one of them has a nice, cozy temperature-controlled house, pantry full of food, a sink with a spigot full of safe drinking water and a shower and toilet that take away all that nasty that they just can’t think about, much less live with, while they point fingers at everyone else.”

So . . . would I like to see an end to all pollution?  Absolutely. After all, we all live downstream.

But I believe that’s an unrealistic expectation, considering our prevalence and dominance as a species on this planet. Let’s keep trying to reduce our pollution footprint, but let’s do so with consent of the governed and with realistic standards, not those imposed by anonymous bureaucrats who live in “la-la land.”

Wednesday
Sep212016

More Intersex Bass Found--- This Time in Illinois

The more waters that scientists investigate, the more intersex bass they find. Latest discovery is in the Des Plaines River, about 125 miles downstream from here.

In dissecting 51 male largemouth bass, researchers from the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) found that 21 had grown oocytes, or female eggs, in their testicular tissue.

“Long-term surveys conducted by the INHS in this region have shown big increases in largemouth bass over the past 40 years since the implementation of the Clean Water Act,” said fisheries biologist Mark Fritts. “It's a dichotomy here because we're seeing a population that has increased dramatically, but we're also seeing this potential problem rising.”

But this part of the river is far from pollution free. Treated sewage from Chicago flows into this area from the Chicago sanitary and Ship Canal. In a 2016 water quality report, the Illinois Protection Agency found 12 out of the 14 segments of the river tested were impaired by contaminants such a fecal bacteria and toxic industrial chemicals.

Pollution seems to be the common thread in other discoveries of intersex bass, both from municipal sewage and agricultural runoff. Specifics are elusive, except for the belief that chemicals acting as "endocrine disruptors" are causing the mutations.  They distort functions that regulate hormones and the reproductive system.

"This is an emerging field of research. We're kind of on the tip of the iceberg," Fritts said. "There are still a lot more questions than answers."

Starting in 2003, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found male smallmouth and largemouth bass with immature eggs in several areas of the Potomac River. Then they noted intersex smallmouth and white suckers at 16 sites in the Delaware, Ohio, and Susquehanna Rivers in Pennsylvania.  At one site near Hershey, Pa., 100 percent of male bass sampled had eggs.

Of these findings, USGS scientist Vicki Blazer said, "We keep seeing a correlation with the percent of agriculture in the watershed where we conduct a study."

Additionally, studies conducted from 1995 to 2004, revealed  intersex bass in the Apalachicola, Savannah, and Pee Dee River basins of the Southeast.

Just last year, meanwhile, two federal agencies found significant numbers of male bass were intersex in waters of or near National Wildlife Refuges in the Northeast. Eighty-five percent of male smallmouths and 27 percent of male largemouths tested positive, according to USGS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

Monday
Sep122016

Angler Assistance Needed to Help Improve Fish Habitat in Potomac

Volunteers are needed to help Sept. 16-18 with a bass habitat project for the Smoots Bay area of the Potomac River.

“The submerged grasses in this largemouth bass nursery have virtually disappeared over the past decade and the spawning success of these fish has consequently declined,”  said Joe Love, Tidal Bass Program Manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR).

“These reef balls will provide important protective habitat for juvenile fish.”

Eighty small concrete balls will be constructed as an initiative of a taskforce that includes MDNR, Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), and National Harbor.

The work will involve mixing and pouring concrete into  molds, the “hatching” of the balls after the concrete has cured, and a general cleanup. CBF is providing the molds and expertise, since it has done this for other areas of the Bay.

This is a hands-on event suitable for anyone over the age of 16. Lunch and water will be provided.

“We’re also planning on sinking some wood with concrete anchors.  The wood washes up at National Harbor and the folks there are beginning to stockpile wood for us,” said Love. “I’m hoping the combination of concrete and natural wood will replace the submerged grasses that were once in Smoots Bay.”

The Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Wetland Studies and Solutions Inc., Fish America Foundation, Pro-Formance Fishing, and the Maryland B.A.S.S. Nation are supporting partners in this project.

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.

Friday
Mar112016

Cooperative Efforts Focus on Preserving, Enhancing Chesapeake Bay Bass Fisheries

Guide Steve Chaconas in front of Capital Wheel in Potomac River's National Harbor

Cooperative efforts are not only bettering Chesapeake Bay bass fisheries. They're also laying the groundwork for future strategies to sustain and enhance these waters that are vulnerable to erosion and saltwater intrusion, as well as projected sea level rise (SLR) related to climate change.

"We're partnering with Maryland B.A.S.S. Nation (MBN) and others to build a reef in tidal freshwater at National Harbor on the Potomac River, the first tidal freshwater reef in Maryland," said Joe Love, tidal bass manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "That type of work might help provide stable reproductive habitat if grasses or wetlands are lost over time.

"In general, it's best to protect habitat, but it's hard to fight the tide," he added. "As habitats change over time, I'm optimistic that innovative work will undoubtedly be accomplished to help protect our tidal freshwater fisheries."

Love also pointed out that  MBN has been working with his agency to stock bass in tidal areas of the Middle and Gunpowder rivers. "While Middle River used to be a great bass fishery, urbanization of that watershed likely led to greater saltwater intrusion, nutrient influx, and reduced productivity for bass," he said.

History confirms that good bass spawning habitat can be lost over time in coastal fisheries. For example, SLR, nutria, and saltwater intrusion have degraded a once prime area in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore, the biologist explained.

And it is the Eastern Shore that will be punished the most by future intrusion and SLR. "More wetland is predicted to be lost from our Eastern Shore than anywhere else in the bay," Love said.

But the most valuable habitat for bass lies in the Potomac River and upper bay (Susquehanna River). Unfortunately, it also is the most vulnerable, according to an extensive survey of 141 nursery habitats on the Chesapeake Bay watershed that Love conducted with the help of other MDNR biologists and funding from the federal Sport Fish Restoration Act.

"They have highly productive nurseries, and are the two biggest fisheries in Maryland tidal waters," he said. "Because of those things, even a relatively small impact form SLR on the Potomac River and the upper bay can have a bigger impact on the fisheries there than on the Eastern Shore, where habitat quality and availability already severely limit population growth rates for largemouth bass."

For the study, Love added that he focused on "how much impact there could be, worst case scenario" in terms of increased salinity, loss of grass and increased influence by tides.

"To be honest, though, I'm not sure how severe those impacts would be," he said. "Will there only be a little loss of grass? Will salinity only rise a little bit?

"I'm not sure about the degree of influence or even how those influences will affect the fisheries. But we need to start thinking about that for these costal bass fisheries and asking those questions."