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Conowingo Dam

The Susquehanna River below Conowingo Dam.

Karen Wolf, For The Sentinel

Yes, the river is sick, and yes, I’ve written about the topic for what seems like endless years. What had been a “world class fishery” is no longer.

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission first documented disease-related mortality of “young-of-year” Smallmouth Bass in the Susquehanna River in 2005. The continued mortality has contributed to the decline in abundance of smallmouth. Since 2012, the commission has unsuccessfully petitioned the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to add the river to the state’s bi-annual list of impaired waterways.

Although the commission “first documented disease related mortality,” anglers have seen it for over 20-years — something that the commission claimed was caused by “spawning stress,” and later, low water flows that resulted in loss of dissolved oxygen. DEP has decided that they, the commission, and any other agency with staff biologists, needed to study the river even more before putting the river on the list of impaired waterways.

The commission announced that two independent laboratory tests have confirmed a malignant, or cancerous, tumor on a single smallmouth bass caught in the middle Susquehanna River by an angler late last year, and provided to the commission. The announcement was made during the commission’s quarterly business meeting held in Wilkes-Barre in early May.

Although it is a “single smallmouth” — one can almost be certain that this fish isn’t the only one out there. Many anglers tire of contacting the commission to report massive die-offs, lesions or sores, and I’m almost certain, tumors found on fish in the river. The river is so full of sick smallmouth that it has become more surprising to catch a healthy looking one. I know I called the commission back in the mid-’90s, and reported fish that had all of the above, save the tumor, and was basically told that it was “spawning stress” combined with algae blooms that began to grow in sections of a silt-filled river.

Now more than 20 years later, commission Executive Director John Arway said that although the findings represent only one individual fish from the overall population, it provides additional evidence that the health of the fish community residing in the river is being compromised.

“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,” he said. “The weight-of-evidence continues to build a case that we need to take some action on behalf of the fish.”

Taking action has come at a snail’s pace at best, from all parties involved.

Since 2005, commission biologists have observed more than 22,000 adult smallmouth as part of routine surveys in the Susquehanna River basin, and have not documented any fish with obvious signs of tumors. However, commission biologists continue to find sores and lesions on young-of-year bass during late spring and early summer surveys at alarming rates. It’s been ten years of surveys as the smallmouth continue to fall prey to toxic cocktails, while the toll rate is still to be determined.

Karen Murphy, acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said “There is no evidence that carcinomas in fish present any health hazard to humans. However, people should avoid consuming fish that have visible signs of sores and lesions.”

Although it falls a step short of stating that fish in the river should not be consumed, Arway echoed Murphy’s statement, adding that anglers must make personal decisions on whether or not to consume fish. He also noted that catch-and-release regulations for smallmouth are already in place on 98 miles of the middle portion of the Susquehanna River, where the symptomatic fish was captured, and on the lower 31.7 miles of the Juniata River from Port Royal to the mouth.

“The impairment designation is critical because it starts a timeline for developing a restoration plan,” Arway said. “We’ve known the river has been sick since 2005, when we first started seeing lesions on the smallmouth. Now we have more evidence to further the case for impairment.”

A timeline for developing a restoration plan? Impairment status often comes with funding for restoration efforts, but the river — I predict, cannot wait to be rushed to an ICU, as someone waits to see if their insurance will pay for it.

“If we do not act to address the water quality issues in the Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania risks losing what is left of what was once considered a world-class smallmouth bass fishery,” he said. “DEP is expected to release its 2016 list of impaired waters in late fall. We are urging them once again to follow the science and add the Susquehanna River to the list.”

“The DEP is a trustee of Pennsylvania’s natural resources, and pure water is the most important of them all. National Drinking Water Week emphasizes our continued role in making Pennsylvania’s water resources safe for everyone in the commonwealth,” said Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley. National Drinking Water Week was held the first full week of May this year.

DEP is either asleep at the wheel or doesn’t understand that healthy fish and clean water go hand-in-hand. Commission biologists conduct annual young-of-year and adult smallmouth bass surveys on this stretch of the river from late June through the end of October when sampling conditions are appropriate. In addition, the commission has enlisted the assistance of certain anglers and guides, to provide fish with obvious masses or lesions, if they encounter any when fishing the river.

Commission staff are continuing to work with DEP, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other partners, to focus efforts on better understanding what factors are impacting the smallmouth inhabiting the middle Susquehanna and lower Juniata rivers.

It’s truly sad that these rivers continue to suffer, and it is hard to decipher who is to blame. But, one thing is for sure; all agencies that play a hand in the river’s future have failed miserably. If these rivers are to survive, we need someone to step up to the plate.

There have been enough meetings, enough reports, enough people burying their heads in the sand, and more than enough excuses. Nature is adaptable, but these two rivers need help, and they need it now.

Dave Wolf may be reached by email at


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