Susquehanna smallmouth: our canaries in the water


Last week, I took my granddaughter and her best friend to the local swimming pool. The water, my nose told me, was free of harmful bacteria; I could smell the disinfectants as I entered the pool area. Within about a half hour, one of the girls came to me.

“Do my eyes look red,” she asked.

A few minutes later, we picked up our gear and went home.

There is a reservoir near my home where they could swim, if it were permitted. But a Pennsylvania DEP scientist once explained to me that swimming should not be allowed in a drinking water reservoir because humans exude the chemicals they ingest, and in many cases those chemicals – mostly pharmaceuticals – cannot be removed by existing water treatment technology.

Now those chemicals, and many more, are clearly degrading our rivers.

Since 2006, Pennsylvania scientists have been searching for the cause of lesions on smallmouth bass in the lower Susquehanna River. That year, about 27 percent of the “young of the year” fish were found to be afflicted. In 2013, the rate had risen to nearly 50 percent.

Data for 2014 is not yet available; fish samples still are being collected.

The suspected causes are many.

Among them, nitrates, associated with a variety of agricultural processes, can suffocate fish and cause lesions and cross-gender development of juvenile fish.

A report issued in June by the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center tells of more than 10 million tons of toxic chemicals dumped in Pennsylvania waterways in 2012. Only six states poured more toxins into their waterways.

The report, “Wasting our Waters,” lists companies dumping hazardous chemicals in the river, many of them with EPA and state permits. Among them, Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., of Wyalusing, ranks 31st in the nation for the reported disposing of nearly 800 tons of toxic chemicals into the upper Susquehanna and Tunkhannock rivers watershed in 2012.

Other industries bring the total toxins disposed of in the watershed to more than 950 tons, placing it at Number 29 among the nation’s fouled watersheds.

Meanwhile, a new report from Pennsylvania’s DEP says that most ag-related chemicals in the Susquehanna River are “acceptable” — but don’t eat the catfish.

And it is a cinch the problem is headed for the Chesapeake Bay.

We are often reminded that pregnant and nursing women should not consume alcohol, lest they pass it to their offspring. This spring, a study found glyphosate, a main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, in human breast milk.

The hand cleaner many of us use to clean our hands and the shopping cart handle at the grocery store is being found in the skin of Susquehanna fish.

A team of scientists in Florida have connected oil spilled by the Deepwater Horizon debacle in 2010 to lesions now being seen on fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico.

We humans tend to be unconcerned about problems someplace other than where we live. Most of us will not connect chemical-laden fracking near the sources of Pennsylvania rivers to problems downstream, in our drinking water and in the Chesapeake Bay.

In a bygone age, miners took canaries into the mines with them. If the birds started dying, the miners headed for the surface.

Adam Garber, field director for PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center, said the Susquehanna’s smallmouth bass are the canaries in the mine, and their sickness is “only going to get worse if we’re not taking action to resolve those pollution sources.”

I was raised on a large lake where I swam from when the water was not frozen until it was again. My grandchildren are prohibited from swimming in the reservoir near my home. They must swim in a chlorine-laden concrete swimming hole in town, and wear goggles to protect their eyes, rather than to see fish and other life under the water’s surface.

We humans are part of the environment in which we live, not separate from it. Water that has flowed through millions of humans and across thousands of industrial workstations along the more than 400 miles of the Susquehanna River enters the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace.

We must pay attention to the canaries before our grandkids discover they’ve gone extinct.

Editor’s note: Readers may contact John Messeder at Distributed by Bay Journal News Service located at 619 Oakwood Drive, Seven Valleys, Pa., 17360-9395

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