Susquehanna Columnaris Still A Problem

Susky smallmouth with Columnaris

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission recently released their young-of -the-year survey with a small amount of good news and more of the same findings that have been worrying PFBC biologists and anglers for years.  The Susquehanna River smallmouth bass population is in decline, is diseased and it is due to pollution.

The Susquehanna is such a large body of water and there are so many possible sources of pollution that it will be a costly process to change what is happening in this great river.  The bottom line however is that pollution is compromising the immune systems of bass, leading to death from a bacterial infection called Columnaris (Flavobacterium columnare).

An infection will usually first manifest in fish by causing frayed and ragged fins. This is followed by the appearance of ulcerations on the skin, and subsequent epidermal loss, identifiable as white or cloudy, fungus-like patches – particularly on the gill filaments. Mucus often also accumulates on the gills, head and dorsal regions. Gills will change colour, either becoming light or dark brown, and may also manifest necrosis. Fish will breathe rapidly and laboriously as a sign of gill damage. Anorexia and lethargy are common, as are mortalities, especially in young fish.  Source

Susquehanna Columnaris Still A Problem

This recent article from the Intelligencer Journal outlines this year’s findings and shows that the PFBC has hit a brick wall.  The DEP is refusing to designate the Susquehanna an “impaired waterway” despite the Fish and Boat Commission’s pleas for help.

“From my perspective, the results varied widely,” said Bachman, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat commissioner from Denver. “But the bottom line is, we still have a polluted river, and that is the cause of the problem.”
“Since 2005, this index has also been used to determine the prevalence of a recently emerging disease that has been affecting [young] smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River system, as well as for detection in areas that have not seen this condition historically,” the report states.

That disease is columnaris, and it’s easily identified by lesions on infected fish.

“We know the dissolved phosphorous concentrations are higher than they ought to be,” Bachman said. “That leads to the low [dissolved oxygen], which causes the fish to be more susceptible to disease.”
Bachman is sickened when he compares recent figures on the lower Susquehanna to those from the 1990s.

“We’ve lost our fantastic smallmouth bass fishery,” he said.

“There are still a lot of big bass out there, but nowhere near what there used to be,” he said. “Is it getting worse or better? I’d say things are kind of the same.”
“Do we all know the problem? Hell, yes,” Bachman said. “And we want DEP to call it a sick river, because that’s what it is.”  Source

John Arway from the PBFC wrote an article called “The Last Bass, stating his case for designation as an impaired waterway before its too late.  You can download this as a PDF here.

In this article he states that for too long, this problem has been ignored even though the river is right at the doorstep of the state capital in Harrisburg.  Anglers have been concerned about fish populations for 20 years but have been ignored until recently.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission are more focused and dedicated to preserving this great fishery and more attention needs to be brought to this situation to protect a great natural resource and potentially decrease the impact of environmental pollution on people and the Chesapeake Bay.

It is encouraging to see the PBFC admitting that Susquehanna Columnaris and pollution are still a problem and that they are pushing for sweeping action to tackle this problem.

Special thanks to Joe Raymond for providing these pictures.

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