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Smallmouth bass a health indicator of Chesapeake Bay watershed

Written by The Associated Press | Apr 25, 2013 10:09 AM
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(Baltimore) -- Smallmouth bass are a favorite of fisherman, who spend millions chasing them. A new report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says that also makes them a good indicator of the health of freshwater rivers and streams in the bay watershed.

Even though they are an introduced species, the report released today says they have become a major part of the region's culture and economy.  It says fishing for the species is responsible for $630 million in sales in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. And that means they are closely tracked by fisheries regulators.

"Many factors appear to be affecting the health of the smallmouth bass in the Lower Susquehanna. Of those currently being studied, pollution levels are one we can control," said Harry Campbell, CBF's Pennsylvania Executive Director. "Pennsylvania has made notable progress in the last 25 years, but in order to reduce stress on the smallmouth bass and other aquatic species, we must continue to reduce the amount of pollution getting into the river, and that requires everyone work together."

The study shows data from the U.S. Geological Survey indicates between 2007 and 2011, 12 of 24 monitoring sites in the Susquehanna River and its tributaries had levels of phosphorus pollution were among the highest in the Chesapeake Bay region. Plus, 11 of 24 sites had high levels of nitrogen. The pollutants not only can cause algal blooms that trigger spikes in pH levels and low-oxygen conditions that stress fish, but can also create conditions that spur the growth of parasites that may be killing young smallmouth bass, new research suggests.

The report's authors say smallmouth bass are sensitive to environmental changes that have led to lesions, intersex traits and other problems. And that can indicate possible future health problems in other species. Populations in the Lower Susquehanna River, the Shenandoah River in Virginia, the South Branch of the Potomac River in West Virginia, and the Monocacy River in Maryland have all experienced disease or die offs in recent years.

Anglers first reported diseased and dying smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River in 2005. Since that time, catch rates are now a mere 20 percent of what they were before. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is halting all fishing for smallmouth bass from May 1 until June 15, for the second year in a row. Many fisheries scientists fear a collapse of the smallmouth bass fishery.

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