- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005

Charles Stanley thinks Mother Nature is slowly bringing the Shenandoah River back to what it used to be because during a recent float fishing trip between Bentonville and Karo Landing, he caught a lot of young smallmouth bass.

“None of the fish were over 10 inches,” Stanley said, “but they were aggressive and fought well.” Good for him, good for all of us.

But when the state of Virginia talks about a persistent fish kill that has severely reduced the adult smallmouth bass and redbreast sunfish population in more than 100 miles of the South Fork and main-stem Shenandoah River, that’s news indeed. Over the years, Virginia has seen more than its share of troubled waters. Sometimes it stands accused of simply looking on in the name of supporting businesses and not doing a whole lot about its polluted waters.

Years ago, a DuPont chemical plant was said to have dumped mercury into the Shenandoah. No one went to jail over this. In the 1970s, a chemical company in Hopewell dumped deadly Kepone into the James River. Did anybody see prison time for this? No.

And there have been whispers over the decades that the historic Rappahannock was the recipient of illegal dumping of questionable liquids. The same holds true of the South Holston River.

Now fisheries biologists estimate that 80 percent of the Shenandoah’s adult smallmouth bass and redbreast sunfish died in the recent fish kill. More precise numbers are coming this fall, when agency personnel compares population numbers with historic data from previous years. The good news is that young smallmouth bass and redbreast sunfish seem not to have been affected.

Virginia says similar fish kills involving the same species occurred on the South Branch of the Potomac River in West Virginia in 2002 and on the North Fork Shenandoah River in 2004. The cause is not known. However, similar land use within these three Potomac watersheds may suggest a connection. Fish have been collected and sent to laboratories at Virginia Tech and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Fish Disease Lab in Lamar, Pa., for analysis.

Virginia fisheries biologists are working with the Department of Environmental Quality to investigate a number of scenarios. One suggests that several natural environmental factors combined with excess nutrients in the water might be the culprit.

Water quality standards for nutrients that can affect stream health do not generally apply in Virginia, even though its scientists agree that elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorous can impair freshwater ecosystems. Many tributaries of the South Fork Shenandoah suffer from nutrient overload, which can cause algal blooms and excessive aquatic weed growth, which at times degrades water quality and stresses fish.

To add to the dilemma, streambank erosion, runoff from parking lots, roads, and pesticides/herbicides can negatively contribute to a stream’s health. Pointing at a single cause for the fish kill is difficult and complex.

In the upper Potomac River, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey laboratory in Leestown, W.Va., are studying smallmouth bass that have both male and female traits. The condition is known as intersex. It has been found in male smallmouth bass that carry eggs in their sperm ducts. It’s not unheard of, says the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. The intersex condition has been observed around the world in freshwater and saltwater fish.

The condition, says Luke Iwanowicz, of the Geological Survey, is linked to a disruption of the fish’s hormone levels. Now researchers are looking for estrogen-like compounds in the water that can alter the fish.

Pollutants are blamed. A range of chemicals and substances can mimic natural hormones. That includes nasty stuff like PCBs, dioxins, DDT and other pesticides, agricultural chemicals, as well as animal and human food additives and other manmade substances, says Iwanowicz.

Here’s the question: what’s wrong with us — all of us?

We know that we’re killing our environment, and we know what causes fish kills. We know what causes bad air — and we know what to do to stop it, so why aren’t we doing it?

Do we have a death wish? Or do we simply want to survive until we’re old, then let our children and grandchildren worry about this blight on our species?

Why aren’t polluters thrown in a dungeon? How much dumber can the human race be? Not much, I’ll wager.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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