From Cacapon March 2004

The Potomac Highlands Watershed School

Investigating Fish Kills

Note: quite a few of Cacapon Institutes members have expressed concern over reports of fish kills and fish with lesions in area rivers, including the Cacapon.  The following report from DEP News (by Jessica Greathouse, reprinted with permission) provides an update on what is being done to investigate the issue. I would add that time is truly of the essence in investigating fish kills. If you observe a problem, please call the number at the bottom of the report immediately. Also, if you would, send us an email at Cacapon Institute as well and we will do our best to ensure a timely response.

"Everyone must be aware that finding a single causative agent may not be possible, or at the very least will require some time," said DEP Division of Water and Waste Management Director Allyn Turner.

Reports of past fish kills and abnormalities in fish from the South Branch of the Potomac River continue to be investigated, state environmental and natural resources officials said today.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Agriculture and Division of Natural Resources have been concerned about fish health in the South Branch of the Potomac River since the first report of a fish kill in 2002.

According to Curtis Taylor, chief of the DNR's Wildlife Resources Section, anglers later reported catching fish with lesions on them, prompting additional monitoring and analysis.

Fish from the South Branch were collected by the DNR in June 2002 and sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Fishery Center in Lamar, Pa. The report from the Northeast Fishery Center indicated the presence of a common bacterium affecting the gills and skin of the fish, but the cause of death was not determined.

DEP Division of Water and Waste Management Director Allyn Turner said that results of water quality sampling conducted by the DEP and the Department of Agriculture have not yet been particularly helpful in understanding the source of the fish mortality. Fish collected in August 2002 were analyzed by the United States Geologic Survey Leetown Fish Health Center and the Auburn University Fish Health Laboratory. The Leetown Fish Health Center reported the presence of a common opportunistic bacterium, external parasites, and the relatively unhealthy appearance of internal organs. According to the Leetown Fish Health Center, the condition of the fish indicated that they may have experienced environmental stress, but there was not enough evidence to determine a specific cause. Auburn University analyzed the fish for black bass virus and reported it was not present.

Monitoring efforts continued in 2003 by a number of state and federal agencies. Water quality sampling was conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, West Virginia Department of Agriculture and DEP, fish collections were made by DNR, and fish tissue analyses were conducted by the Leetown Fish Health Center. Fish collections were made at seven sites on the South Branch and at one location each on the Lost, North, and Cacapon rivers.

An analysis of the monitoring results determined that, overall, fish populations were in good condition in all the streams sampled. Fish growth was also considered good in the analysis of smallmouth bass ranging in age from one to nine years.

The percentage of smallmouth bass showing external lesions collected from multiple sites along the four rivers ranged from zero to 57 percent.

Fish collected from the Lost and North rivers did not have lesions. The external lesions could be attributed to an inflammatory reaction to bacteria, viruses, parasites, or a reaction to degraded water quality conditions.

External parasites were found on some fish, as well as internal parasites on the organs of others. A number of smallmouth bass were found to have eggs in male testes, a condition called intersex (see box below). Forty two percent of smallmouth bass males in the South Branch were found with this condition, but not every location had fish that exhibited the condition. Less than 5 percent of smallmouth bass from the Cacapon, Lost, or North rivers were found with the same condition.

State and federal agencies have agreed to continue monitoring efforts and studies are being proposed by several universities to augment existing evaluations. The DNR plans to collect fish at three different times this year within the South Branch and in other streams. The USGS Leetown Fish Health Center will continue to conduct fish health assessments and work with various university researchers to assess biological and chemical conditions within the fish. DEP and the Department of Agriculture will continue to monitor water quality and maintain a database for all information collected.

"Everyone must be aware that finding a single causative agent may not be possible, or at the very least will require some time," said Turner. "Until we have some more definitive results, this cooperative monitoring program on the South Branch remains a very high priority for all agencies involved."

To report a fish kill or fish with lesions from the South Branch 

or Cacapon watersheds either fill in the web-based form here or call (800) 642-3074.

Intersex? N. Gillies, Cacapon Institute

What do gators in Florida, swordfish in the Mediterranean, and polar bears in the Arctic have in common with bass in our own South Branch? They all show signs of reproductive and developmental anomalies apparently caused by an excess of natural and synthetic hormones in our environment, as well as by a host of other organic chemicals, like PCBs and pesticides, that can mimic endogenous hormones.   A web search on "intersex and fish" will generate days of reading on scholarly research addressing this problem as manifested around the world.   Research is ongoing in many areas, including possible effects on human health. The issue has also made it into the lay literature, with clever titles like "A Fish Named Wayne/Wanda" (Kara LeBeau, Chronic Neuroimmune Diseases, belying the seriousness of the problem.

The intersex condition (eggs in male testes) in fish, as observed in South Branch bass, has generally been linked with waste streams from sewage treatment plants and animal feeding operations. Part of the problem is that the hormones naturally excreted by living animals are centralized and highly concentrated in these wastes. Another part of the problem is that the use of artificial hormones (birth control pills, estrogen treatment, hormone feeding and implants to make animals grow more quickly), added to those naturally excreted, increase the total hormone load.

And just what is the problem with a few eggs in a male fish’s testes? The most obvious is reduced fertility. Studies have found that fish exhibiting the intersex condition have reduced sperm density, with fewer motile sperm having shortened activity. There are also indications that development of sperm in these fish may occur at the wrong time. It doesn’t do a lot of good to have sperm when the females aren’t spawning. Finally, some research has indicated that "feminization" of male fish may cause liver and kidney disfunction and anemia, leading to a decline in the health of the fish and leaving them more susceptible to disease. Perhaps like the lesions observed on bass in our rivers?

An excellent review of endocrine disrupting chemicals in our environment and their effects on fish, courtesy of the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, can be found at: