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Mystery Disease Affecting Smallmouth Bass in Susquehanna Prompts Calls to Put the River on Impaired

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is investigating a disease being found in smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna, Schuylkill, and Delaware Rivers.  Lesions are being found on the fish and hatchlings are dying off in significant numbers. The problem is that the culprit hasn’t been found.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission wants a portion of the Susquehanna to be placed on an impaired rivers list. But the DEP said if that were to happen, the agency would have to say why it’s impaired which means identifying certain pollutants that need to be reduced.

“To date, the Fish and Boat Commission hasn’t given us any specifics on what pollutant might be causing this stress,” said DEP Spokesman Kevin Sunday, “we’ve spent hundreds of hours, we actually spent six months out on the river last year, sampling and characterizing it, to really get an understanding of the extent and scope of the problem.”

The investigation is ongoing but time consuming. Sunday said the Susquehanna isn’t so much one river as it is thousands of acres of wetlands and tributaries and waterways and watersheds that make up the river, along with three main branches which each have their own characteristics and conditions.

“What’s especially puzzling about this is that we’ve seen the stressed smallmouth bass in a number of different environments and there doesn’t seem to be one common variable among them, so it’s a very complex problem that we need to take our time looking at and getting on firm scientific ground before we come to our next steps,” said Sunday.

If the river is put on an impaired list, the Fish and Boat Commission said it could take several years to remedy and allow fishing. Right now there seems to be disagreement over the scope of the problem; the Fish and Boat Commission said the river is sick, while Sunday said that may not be the case.

“It doesn’t appear that the river itself is sick, as it’s only the smallmouth bass that are showing this stress. Other aquatic species and plant life seem to be ok.”