The Susquehanna River is in trouble, but the disease killing off the fish is not harmful to humans, according to members of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
During a forum held Wednesday evening at Lycoming College, members of the commission explained why they believe the river deserves to be declared "impaired" by the state Department of Environmental Protection. In early April, Executive Director John Arway sent an 18-page letter to the department, detailing why the commission believes the river deserves impairment status.
According to Arway, if the river is declared impaired, the department will establish total maximum daily limits for pollution from runoff, conduct water quality surveys, and work to correct the various issues scientists are seeing.
"Impermanent means that we'll be able to study and identify the sources of these problems," Arway said.
"If we could have fixed this problem already, we would have done it," Arway added. He explained that the commission was limited by staff and resources.
One of the primary reasons for concern is the disease plaguing the young-of-year smallmouth bass population in the river.
The disease was first recognized in the spring of 2005 by anglers who noticed that many of the juvenile smallmouth bass were dead or dying. The population that remained often exhibited opens sores on their bodies.
Then scientists discovered that an extremely high number of juvenile bass were "intersexed," where males are carrying female eggs. According to the commission, as high as 90 percent of the male juvenile population may be affected.
Geoff Smith, Susquehanna River biologist for the commission, explained that scientists had diagnosed the fish with "columnaris" bacteria, a bacteria that is normally present in rivers. He maintained that there was no evidence the fish from the Susquehanna were unsafe to eat.
"We have no reason to believe that these conditions ... would pose any threat to humans," Arway said.
However, scientists are unsure why columnaris is having such a serious effect on young smallmouths.
"There is no single factor that seems to be driving this condition," Smith said.
According to Smith, mortality rates as high as 70 percent have been documented. Every year with a poor juvenile population survival rate means poor fishing for the next five to six years, due to the time it takes smallmouths to reach adulthood.
The Susquehanna was previously recognized as a prime fishing spot for smallmouths and drew in anglers from across the nation.
This spring, anglers began to notice another disturbing trend. Bass from the river were showing up with black blotches or spots on their bodies.
Smith explained that this disease was being seen all over the country, not just in the Susquehanna. But it is another cause for concern.