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Entries in Potomac River (26)

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."

Tuesday
Mar082016

Is Stockpiling a Problem for Bass Fisheries? It Depends . . . 

Live-release boats prevent stockpiling of bass in the weigh-in areas.

Prompted by B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott,  anglers of the 1970s began to release their fish instead of kill them. During those early years, only the big picture was in focus, and it revealed bass fishermen to be stewards who cared about conserving the resource.

Then we began to closer examine our actions and their consequences, and we realized that not all of those released bass survived, including many caught in tournaments. We recognized that improper handling led to delayed mortality. We worked to increase survival rates by devising and promoting better ways to handle bass from lake to livewell to weigh-in stand and finally to release. In 2002,  B.A.S.S. compiled a "Keeping Bass Alive" handbook for anglers and tournament organizers.

We're not there yet, and likely never will be in terms of keeping all bass alive after they are released, but we've dramatically lowered delayed mortality rates through innovation and education.

And as we've responded to that challenge, we've noted yet another, this one specifically related to tournament fishing: Stockpiling.

Traditionally, the term referred to what the United States and USSR did with nuclear weapons during the Cold War or what survivalists continue to do with food, firearms, and precious metals. But during the past two decades or so, fisheries managers have recognized it as a phenomenon that occurs when all the bass are released near the weigh-in site following a tournament or two or three . . .

What's the problem with stockpiling? At a meeting last fall with Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) biologists, concerned anglers suggested that when bass are collectively released at a weigh-in site they become more susceptible to meat fishermen who catch and kill, as well as easier targets for future tournament anglers, resulting in increased  chances of stress, injury, and delayed mortality.

MDNR agreed that stockpiling can damage the overall health of a fishery, and Tony Prochaska, Inland Fisheries division manager, added that the issue likely is a national one. As evidence, he pointed out that 6 of 10 northeastern states that responded to questions about this issue said it is a concern.

Telemetry work conducted in the North East and Potomac rivers decades ago revealed that some fish will leave the release area, but about half may remain for a month or more. Out in California, a study conducted during the 1990s on Lake Shasta showed that largemouth bass moved less than three miles from where they were released. 

MDNR's tidal bass manager, Joe Love, says that the issue comes down to two questions:

1) Are too many fish being taken from one area, such as isolated streams and then released at a distant weigh-in site?

2) Are too many fish being released at a weigh-in area?

"We've found that the answer to both of these questions is that it depends on the weigh-in area," he said. "Specifically, it depends on the number of shore anglers fishing the weigh-in area, water quality in the area, and the distance of the weigh-in area from streams where the fish were taken."

Additional variables include the numbers and sizes of the fish weighed and the sizes and timing of the tournaments

Anglers and fisheries managers alike agree that there's an acceptable  loss or mortality of fish, Love added.  Otherwise there wouldn't be limits. But how much does stockpiling add to that loss, especially at popular sites where multiple weigh-ins are staged each season?

"Pinpointing the relative impact of a single factor is nearly impossible, making successful mitigation of that single factor improbable," the biologist said. "In combination with other factors affecting a fishery, though, stockpiling may affect a fishery if it increases the number of fish caught and released at the weigh-in site and the number of fish caught and eaten at the weigh-in site, both of which increases fishing mortality and reduces the proportion of big fish in a population."

Unlike habitat loss and other factors affecting the quality of a bass fishery, stockpiling likely can be managed. MDNR hopes to do that by having tournament directors specify what management practices they intend to use, such as spreading around weigh-in areas during a tournament trail and/or reducing possession limits.

"We also are working with some tournament organizations such as B.A.S.S. and PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America) to redistribute fish when they request assistance because of otherwise significant, undue harm to bass survival," Love said.

Because of so many variables, stockpiling is a more complex problem than delayed mortality, but fisheries managers and concerned anglers are working on it to better protect and enhance the nation's bass fisheries.

Tuesday
Jan052016

30 Years as a Conservation Writer

Steve Chaconas has written a kind and generous article about my 30 years as a conservation writer and Senior Writer for B.A.S.S. If it weren't for longtime Bassmaster editor Dave Precht, who took a chance on me, I wouldn't have had the opportunity. I can't say enough about how lucky I feel to be associated with B.A.S.S. and the many great people who work there.

Check out Steve's article here. And if you want a guide to fish the Potomac River, Capt. Steve Chaconas is your man.

 

Thursday
Oct082015

Snakeheads Growing Bigger, Spreading Farther Up the Potomac

Dan Moon caught this monster snakehead on a Booyah spinnerbait.

As state and federal resource managers revealed that the northern snakehead has spread into the Upper Potomac River, a local angler provided yet more evidence that these exotic predatory fish grow larger here than anywhere else in the world. That's a potential double whammy for bass and other native species.

"Part of the reason we should be worried about it is we don't really know what the impacts are going to be," said Joe Love, tidal bass program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). "We do know that, in some cases, invasive species cost millions of dollars in damage to the ecosystem."

With the population of snakeheads in the tidal Potomac now an estimated 20,000, one concern  is that  aggressive snakeheads will outcompete bass for food, a fear that is heighted by the fact that they are growing to world-record proportions. In late June, Dan Moon boated the latest giant, which weighed 18.8 pounds on an uncertified scale.  The official world record checked in at 17-12, and was caught last year within two miles of where Moon caught his fish.

With both adult snakeheads and fry confirmed in the C&O canal above Great Falls, it seems almost certain that the invaders will spread up the non-tidal Potomac, as well as into its tributaries.

"Eradication is not possible once these fish become established in an open river system such as the Potomac," said MDNR biologist John Mullican. "We expect that these fish will eventually become a permanent part of the Upper Potomac fish community. Confronting snakeheads in the canal system is the best way to mitigate their emigration into the Upper Potomac.

Consequently, Maryland is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service to develop control strategies.

MDNR emphasized that the snakehead can be caught legally in any season and at any size. "We'd like it to be harvested if anyone catches it," Love said. "We'd like it if they took it home and possibly ate it. Anglers and archers enjoy fishing for them, which is great. And they enjoy eating them, which is great."