State Agencies Tangle Over the Health of the Susquehanna River and Smallmouth Bass

  • Young smallmouth bass found with lesions in the Susquehanna River. Photo: PA Fish and Boat.

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection just announced the Susquehanna River is not going to be added to the state’s list of impaired rivers.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is not pleased. 

The Commission says the DEP is in denial about the quality of the Susquehanna’s water and its impacts on a species of fish that has lured fishermen from all over the country to the river’s banks.

Young smallmouth bass - one of the most popular sport fish in America - are turning up with lesions and sores in the Susquehanna. In the last two years, older fish have also been found with similar lesions.

According Fish and Boat director, John Arway, excessive algae blooms in the Susquehanna are depressing oxygen levels at night and the depressed oxygen increases ph levels in the day.

“The low oxygen and high ph levels cause stressful conditions for these fish which get infected by bacteria that eventually kills them,” says Arway.

Fish and Boat has spent a half a million dollars studying the die-off. Their research points to stressors including low oxygen levels, warmer water temperatures and growing rates of phosphorous in the Susquehanna.

But the DEP questions if water quality has anything to do with the health issues these bass are having.

Spokesman Kevin Sunday calls Fish and Boats findings “sparse” and their call for declaring the Susquehanna impaired “premature.” An impairment designation under the federal Clean Water Act would require the state to create a plan to eliminate pollutants.

“The Fish and Boat came to us with four pieces of data. One of them for dissolved oxygen and three of them for ph,” says Sunday. “They asked us on the basis of four pieces of information to impair a 98 mile stretch of the river. That’s very questionable from a scientific standpoint to make such a long stretch of impairment based on such limited data.”

The  Fish and Boat Commission says they submitted "several years worth of data that meet DEP's standard for an impairment listing."

The quantity and quality of Fish and Boat’s data aren’t DEP’s only objection to placing the river on the impairment list. The agency likes to point out that only young smallmouth bass are dying in the Susquehanna.

“No other aquatic life or plants seem to be impacted” says Sunday.

But John Arway isn’t buying that argument. He compares DEP’s inaction to ignoring a disease that impacts only a sector of the general human population.

“I liken that to if we had a portion of the population of single white males less than 25 years old in Harrisburg being affected by a disease, we’re not going to do anything until everyone else in the population gets affected by the same disease,” says Arway.

The DEP is studying the problem. The agency concedes that young smallmouth bass have died in droves since 2005 and some mature smallmouth are showing up in the river with sores and lesions. The agency also acknowledges that sexual characteristics of one gender of this fish are showing up in the other.

This summer, DEP did water quality studies on six rivers including six sites on the Susquehanna and will work with Fish and Boat and others. Mostly they’ve examined macroinvertebrates: smaller animals including aquatic insects, worms and snails to check the river’s health. Fish and Boat argues that fish are more common in big rivers like the Susquehanna and should be used to monitor water quality.

Long time fishing guide Max McAllister just wants some action on the part of the state. He’s been taking people out on the Susquehanna to fish for smallmouth bass for more than 20 years and he’s been losing his customers.

“We get calls from all over the country asking about what’s happening with the Susquehanna. Our business is off 40 to 60 percent,” says McAllister.

The fishing industry brings billions of dollars into Pennsylvania so the state has a lot to lose if the smallmouth bass disappear from the Susquehanna.