Here's the latest on the fish kills that are threatening some of our major smallmouth rivers -- and our forecast of the best rivers and lakes to fish this coming year. (February 2008).
Photo by Bruce Ingram.
The mood was grim last June 12. I had driven to the Narrow Passage ramp on the James River in Botetourt County and was now aboard an electro-shocking boat with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologists Scott Smith and Dan Michaelson of the Forest and Farmville offices, respectively.
The two biologists had kindly let me go along to watch as they shocked up smallmouths, rock bass, redbreast sunfish, suckers and other fish as part of their attempt to learn more about, and possibly find out the causes of, the fish kills that had struck the James River Watershed, including the Cowpasture and Jackson rivers, in May.
The fish kills have had a tremendous negative effect on the smallmouth bass populations here.
As Smith maneuvered the craft from the stern, Michaelson employed a long-handled net near the electro-shocking device (a spider-like contraption that hung over the bow next to Michaelson) to scoop up the stunned fish, which he then deposited into livewells in the middle of the johnboat.
Some of the fish appeared perfectly normal, some had lesions that were beginning to heal, and some possessed ugly, open sore-like lesions that had stripped away their scales. Smith ran the boat up and down from the Narrow Passage ramp some half dozen times, stopping after every trip for him and Michaelson to deposit fish in submerged holding cages next to the ramp.
After our final run, VDGIF biologist Steve Reeser and some United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) personnel joined us at the ramp. As Reeser, Smith, Michaelson and I sat in a group, talking in hushed tones, observing the surreal scene of USFS biologist John Coll (gloves on his hands like a surgeon) removing kidney and spleen tissue samples from the fish -- samples that were on their way to a government lab in Pennsylvania -- I was filled with anger about what had happened to one of Virginia's (and America's) great smallmouth rivers.
Last May and June, a fish kill struck the James River Watershed, one very similar to the kills that have plagued the Potomac/Shenandoah Watershed since 2002 when a kill hit the South Branch of the Potomac in West Virginia. Reeser, who has had to deal with the kills on the Shenandoah system, had come to lend his assistance to Smith and Michaelson, two of the biologists for the James Watershed.
In 2005, the worst of the kills savaged the South Fork of the Shenandoah, as Reeser and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) personnel estimated that 80 percent of the smallmouth bass and redbreast sunfish perished.
For the 2007 kill on the James Watershed, Scott Smith estimated that some 10 to 25 percent of the smallmouths had succumbed in the upper James above Lynchburg, with the kill lessening in lethality the closer the river came to Richmond.
The three biologists and I talked about many things as we watched the federal officials do their work, but one thing that Scott Smith said became seared in my memory.
"If the pattern of the fish kills on the James Watershed is similar to that on the Shenandoah, then in the spring of 2008, the James will have a worse fish kill than it did in 2007."
Obviously, I had much rather write about where to go to catch smallmouth bass in the Old Dominion, but the reality today is that the state that once boasted what many feel, including myself, was the best river smallmouth bass fishery in the United States now has endured kills on four of its six major rivers: the Potomac, Shenandoah, South Fork of the Shenandoah and the James.
Only the New and Rappahannock among the sextet have escaped the devastation.
Nor have smaller rivers escaped: The Cowpasture, Jackson and North Fork of the Shenandoah all have been hit.
So where does the ongoing investigation stand at this writing?
"My hope is that with our sampling we can confirm or eliminate known fish pathogens, for example, largemouth bass virus (LMBV), as a source of the problem," Smith said. "At the same time, I would hope that we would start looking very closely at the next most likely causes. If it turns out to be a new, undiscovered virus, the only likely way we will find that will be if it continues to spread through time to watersheds without some of the 'issues' that the Shenandoah and James have.
"This will probably be a very tough problem to solve, and it won't happen fast enough for me, but there should be workable solutions out there. One of the big problems we are having in dealing with these fish kills is that the fish are not all dying of the same thing."
Smith explained that most of the smallmouths and other game and non-game fish are dying from some type of bacterial infection, but it's not always the same bacteria. For example, besides smallmouths, I observed redbreast sunfish, rock bass and several species of suckers with lesions. Other fish are dying of fungus-type infections and some are dying without any outward signs of a problem.
Smith believes the most likely scenario is that these fish are suffering from some type of immune system failure that then leads to secondary infections. In fact, the fish are behaving as if they have contracted something that operates on their systems much like HIV does.
The biologist added that the immune systems of the smallmouths and other fish become compromised and then contract an injury or affliction that they cannot recover from. It's like, he said, the fish are dying from paper cuts. If their immune systems are the problem, then the next step will be to find what the disrupter is.
The possibilities are numerous: a virus (for example, LMBV or something new and undiscovered) or a compound coming into the watershed (poultry waste, endocrine disruptors, atmospheric deposition of toxic agent, metals, or combination of all these things). If it is a known virus, the biologist believes that state and federal biologists can find it. If it is an unknown virus, Smith said that the experts tell him that discovering a new virus usually takes four to five years.
"If it's some compound coming into the watershed, then that will take a long time to narrow down as well, probably years here, too," he said. "We are dealing with way too many possible variables to get a quick and easy answer. I think that so
me people have watched too much CSI and think you can solve these mysteries in an hour. That just isn't the case."
Smith said the James fish kill is "pretty similar" to the kills on the Shenandoah, but seems to be affecting more species on the James -- for example, fish as diverse as suckers and muskies.
One of the theories is that the increased transportation of poultry litter from the Shenandoah Valley into the James Watershed is behind the kills. Bill Tanger of the Float Fishermen of Virginia believes that there needs to be a map that shows the locations of poultry litter and poultry processing locations with an overlay of fish kill areas.
Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble of Boyce has dedicated himself to ascertaining the reasons behind the Virginia fish kills and has extensively looked into the concept that Tanger proposes. Through his research of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) database, Kelble has come up with these figures concerning the amount of poultry litter that has been transported from the Shenandoah Watershed into that of the James between 2004 and 2006.
Please note, emphasized Kelble, that there's little record of transportation into the James watershed before 2004. But transportation "jumped up" in 2005 and then again in 2006, and none of the 2007 numbers are in yet. Also, note that 37.6 percent of all the litter was transported by professional litter transport services. None of them listed the nearest receiving waters as required, so for these two reasons the real numbers are much higher than what he has reported.
.29,460,000 pounds of litter were transported into the Cowpasture River Watershed;
€¢ 4,800,000 pounds of litter were transported into the Jackson River Watershed;
€¢ 19,860,000 pounds of litter were transported into the rest of the Upper James Watershed above Buchanan/ Glasgow region.
Additionally, continued the Shenandoah Riverkeeper, 19 licensed poultry houses (probably turkey) exist in a relatively small area of the Cowpasture and its main tributary, the Bullpasture. All of these houses are upriver from where the VDGIF has discovered fish health problems. There are also eight houses on the Jackson River where it joins the Cowpasture to create the James River in Botetourt County.
"Whether this is enough litter to have anything to do with the fish kills or not remains to be seen," Kelble said. "I would prefer to leave that type of conclusion to the scientists on the Shenandoah River Fish Kill Task Force that have proposed a hypothesis that includes poultry litter as a primary stressor in the kills.
"Now the task force is moving in a more defined direction, including looking in great detail at the agricultural waste stream for contaminants that could explain the effects we're seeing in fish. If it's not being caused by a biological agent, some 'super-bug,' then it has to be a contaminant. So, we'll forge ahead with ongoing work to isolate a virus or virulent bacterial strain, and in the meantime begin studies trying to prove or disprove that our answers lie in agricultural runoff and animal waste.
"Either way, this should not be construed as a threat to agriculture, or viewed as a witch hunt. The task force has moved forward very cautiously and with great sensitivity to anyone affected by its efforts. After two years of work with dozens of scientists looking at this problem, it has become evident that we need to understand better the agricultural contaminants we're already finding in the water and in our fish."
Indeed, the contaminants include arsenic, copper, selenium, cadmium and highly estrogenic and active hormones naturally produced by these genetically selected strains of chicken. The spreading of poultry litter has also resulted in an over-application of phosphorus, which is likewise finding its way into our rivers.
OTHER SMALLMOUTH NEWS
Fortunately, there is news to report that does not have to do with fish perishing. Dan Wilson, VDGIF biologist for 20,000-acre Smith Mountain Lake, gives this update.
"There are smallmouths throughout the reservoir, but the best fishing is between the dam and state park on the Roanoke and up to Bull Run on the Blackwater," Wilson said. "VDGIF electrofishing sampling for smallmouths and largemouths shows species composition looks similar throughout the lake, but creel data shows the highest catch rates in the lower reaches.
"We miss most of the smallmouths in the dam end due to their preference for deeper/clear water, making them difficult for the shocking boat (to sample). The angler data should be the more accurate reflection of the species composition. Smallmouth numbers have not increased recently, but the decline has subsided. The highlight -- the past couple of years smallmouths are averaging larger sizes than anytime in over 10 years."
John Odenkirk, VDGIF biologist for the Rappahannock, noted that the state has conducted an experimental stocking of smallmouths to see if doing so could enhance a previous poor year-class. Based on June 2007 water flows, Odenkirk believes that last year's hatch could be poor as well. However, the good news is that two excellent year-classes (2004 and 2005) were followed by an average spawn (2006).
Odenkirk calls the conservation easement that took place on the Rappahannock "grand news." He is, of course, referring to the fact that Fredericksburg City Council agreed to place 4,232 acres of riverfront land along a 31-mile corridor of the Rappahannock Watershed under an easement. He added that forage increases due to shad migration above Embrey Dam, which was removed several years ago, should result in increased growth and higher biomass upriver -- very good news for smallmouth bass fishermen.
Peter Pfotenhauer voluntarily assisted Odenkirk with the release of smallies and said that the experimental stocking has the potential to help the river recover from the excessive siltation. That siltation is reducing the available preferred smallmouth habitat in many pools and long stretches of the Rappahannock. Additionally, the stocking will help poor year-classes not only on the Rappahannock but also -- potentially and eventually -- be a model for other waterways.
Also, Pfotenhauer, who is editor of The Buzz, the newsletter for the Potomac River Smallmouth Club, hopes that landowners upriver from the city of Fredericksburg's easement will consider placing easements on their lands in order to further protect the watershed.
Tom Hampton, VDGIF fisheries biologist from the Marion office, reported that on the Clinch and North Fork of the Holston, the 2005 year-class was above average, the 2006-year class was below average and low flows in June 2007 predict poor survival of that year's spawn.
Hampton mentioned that the Marion office is conducting a mail survey of fishing license buyers in Smyth, Washington, Russell and Scott counties to help g
uide future management of the North Fork Holston River. Currently, the North Fork has a strict regulation in effect in that no bass less than 20 inches can be kept and only one per day longer than 20 inches.
George Palmer, the VDGIF biologist for the upper New, said that 2006 was a good spawning year on that part of the stream for bronzebacks. He will not know about the 2007 year-class until the spring of 2008 because the VDGIF can sample the upper New only in the spring because of low flows in the fall. The VDGIF conducted a creel survey in 2007, but the results were not available at press time.
The biologist wishes to remind anglers that the upper New River has been under a 14- to 20-inch slot for all black bass since July of 2006. Only one black bass over 20 inches can be kept. Interestingly, on the upper New, fish take 10 to 13 years to reach trophy size (20 inches).
On the lower New below Claytor, VDGIF biologist John Copeland reported that he is in the midst of an angler survey. The same slot is in effect below the dam as well, although it came into effect in January of 2003.
"We seem to be having pretty good compliance with the slot," Copeland said. "Occasionally, we'll find people with an illegal bass, but most people are practicing catch-and-release. All indications are that the slot has been working well and that people are catching trophy fish from the good year-class of 1996, which has been driving the fishery. The 2004 and 2005 smallmouth year-classes were the best in my 10 years of managing the lower New and will carry the fishery in the future."
Copeland said that the 2006 year-class did not look good when he sampled and that it is too early to rate the 2007 class, although he did observe "oodles of fry." Interestingly, on the lower New, the closer smallmouths live to the dam, the later they spawn. On most of Virginia's rivers, the smallmouths spawn in April, but in Claytor, at least for the first 30 miles or so below the dam, they do so in mid-May.
Regarding Claytor, the biologist reported that the lake continues to experience consistent recruitment of its smallmouths, which make up some 30 percent of the black bass fishery. The smallies are primarily located between Peak Creek and the dam.
Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books (cost in parentheses): The James River Guide ($17.25), The New River Guide ($15), and Shenandoah/Rappahannock Rivers Guide ($18.25). The address for ordering copies of the books is P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.