Susquehanna River Summit

On March 20, 2013 70+ River Guides, Anglers, Outfitters, Conservationists and Staff from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission gathered at the Best Western in Lewisburg PA for the Susquehanna River Summit. The Summit was organized by Jan Jarrett, retired President of Penn Future and it was designed to bring together interested parties to enable us to act with one voice for the Susquehanna River and effectively advocate and work together to solve the problems plaguing our resource. As we all are aware, numerous problems are plaguing the Smallmouth Bass population of the Susquehanna River; and these problems ultimately caused John Arway, Director of the PFBC to implore the Pennsylvania DEP to include the 98 miles of the  Susquehanna River  from Sunbury to the Maryland line on their listing of  Impaired Rivers to the EPA. PADEP declined, citing ‘a lack of scientific evidence of causation. This created considerable backlash toward that agency from not only the PFBC, but other environmental and river advocacy groups. One result was a letter-writing campaign organized by the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper to the EPA, imploring them to list the river by sharing our observations as Guides, Anglers or just interested parties and noting how our recreational use of the river had been impaired by the decline of the river health.

The Summit opened with the PFBC discussing the biological issues and working hypotheses of the causes. Director John Arway provided us with the history and 50,000 foot view of the issues. He directly commented that the decline of Rock Bass and Red Breast Sunfish was likely our first indication of problems in the river, but little was done save for lowering the limits of keeping these panfish species. He also discussed the  Economic Impact that the collapse of the river would  potentially cause. Angling in Pennsylvania is a $3.4 Billion industry, employing 18,000 people (directly or indirectly) and adding $121 million to the bottom line of the State and Local Taxes. There is also the impact on the PFBC Budget by the Federal Excise tax on Fishing and Boating equipment; which is governed by the number of licenses and boat registrations sold. Director Arway yielded the floor to Geoff Smith, who discussed the specific issues impacting the Smallmouth Bass fishery, as well as the biological studies and possible hypotheses of causation. Everything from the Gross Lesions,  to the Parasites and  Viruses (such as Largemouth Bass Virus) that are affecting Young of the Year was discussed from a technical aspect. He then discussed the issues plaguing adult fish, such as Papilloma (Cancer), ‘Blotchy Bass’ (Melanosis, non-cancerous Melanoma) and Intersex issues of male SMB–Testicular Oocytes (found in 90%+)and the egg-precursor protein Vitellogenin. Evidence of contaminants ranging from Endocrine Disruptors found in PCB’s, Pesticides, Flame Retardants, Organochlorine Compounds,  and Personal Care products were shown to be present, based on evidence from studies on the river that were done in 2009 and 2010. The working hypothesis is that a ‘Perfect Storm’ of stressors–including low water, increased water temperature, the presence of contaminants, low dissolved oxygen, high concentrations of dissolved phosphorus and increased algae blooms–may be to blame for the issues affecting the Susquehanna. There is likely no one single cause. Not only this but the Lower Susquehanna seems to be the place most affected, and certainly continued Study is required.

We heard from guides and outfitters who have had their business affected by the decline in Smallmouth Bass populations. They are often asked by clients if the River is ‘Safe’. The PADEP says it is–outgoing Director Krancer said he would actually ‘eat a bass’ caught in the affected section of the  river. Of course, this section of the Susquehanna that we have requested to be listed is Catch and Release Only, so his words are somewhat empty. The Guides and Outfitters agree that PADEP needs to show us the science and evidence that the river is truly safe and thereby does not require a listing of ‘Impaired’ by the the EPA. We also need to guard against creating more of a negative perception by the public regarding the Susquehanna, as it is not a lost cause.

Members of Watershed groups, such as Headwaters LLC and PA Greenways, stepped to the floor to discuss the approaches they use for revitalization of the Susquehanna. The Susquehanna alone provides drinking water for 6,000,000 people in NY, PA and MD. It provides recreation, hydroelectric power, scenic beauty and wildlife habitat. Preservation of Greenways is far cheaper than building sewage and water treatment facilities. It leads to revitalized communities, increase in property values by up to 20%, increased tax revenues for communities, jobs, parks, lowered water treatment costs, is a business attractor (as well as resident attractor) and aids in flood mitigation. For every dollar invested in the Susquehanna Greenway, there is a $3 return; and if we use brownfields for development rather than farmland, we save 4.5 acres of that farmland for every acre we develop. Many brownfields are along the river; as that is where many industries of old located. This is a win-win for all involved.

So, what can be done to save the River? We heard from Public policy individuals, attorneys and stewardship groups like the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper. Listing the Susquehanna as a 303(d) Impaired River requires no causality of the issues to be known. It galvanizes action and begins a process whereby studies can be done and funded properly to look at the River and determine the cause or causes of the issues. Methods and regulations can then be developed to mitigate the pollutants discharged into the Susquehanna  or outright regulate and/or ban pollutants such as phosphorus, the numerous endocrine disrupting chemicals and any other chemicals or pollutants found to be creating our current situation with regard to the health of the Smallmouth bass population. The State has a legal obligation both under Article 1, Section 27 of the PA constitution, as well as the laws of the US regarding Designated Use as a Warm Water Fishery and recreation destination. Not to mention the potential Human Health issues that may loom in the background.

What can we do as anglers, recreational users of the Susquehanna or indeed as mere citizens? Well, first off anglers can keep a diary of fishing. Be especially noteworthy of Times, Dates, Locations, Observations and even include photographs when diseased and/or dying fish or algae blooms are encountered. Under the Political Process, we can vote for candidates who will safeguard the River (and indeed are good stewards of the Environment altogether), and let the candidates in office know our feelings regarding the river. Elegant prose is unnecessary–indeed a phone call is as good as a letter. The Budgetary Process can be influenced by letting our elected officials know our feelings about budgetary line items that directly affect the River. We can write opinion/Op-Ed and letters to the Editor. River Guides and Outfitters can educate their clients. We can record and post videos to You Tube, Facebook and any number of other outlets. Anglers and river users and document  and photograph sick fish and algae blooms. We can speak to local groups, and  join local watershed groups. Be an outspoken Advocate for Dedicated Fundig to study the problems plaguing the Susquehanna Above all, we should attend Town Hall Meetings conducted by our elected officials, and ask specific questions regarding the River.

We can save the Susquehanna, but it will take One Voice–composed of many notes.