Agencies clash over desire to qualify Susquehanna as sick river

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Anyone who spends time on the Lower Susquehanna River will tell you there's something wrong with the fish.

“It's heartbreaking when you see fish,” long-time fishing guide Steven Hancock said. “There is definitely a problem with the fish.”

“What it is, I don't know, but there is definitely a problem with the bass,” said Kenneth Moore, who lives along the river in Long Level.

It's been the talk of outdoor shops for years.

“It's something that definitely concerns us both from a personal, lifestyle, recreational standpoint, as well as business standpoint,” said Steve Winard, co-owner of Shank's Mare Outfitters.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has proof there's something seriously wrong. Smallmouth bass have lesions, fish are changing gender, and populations are dying off.

“They are the sentinels of the overall health of the river,” said John Arway, the commission's executive director. “Once we start seeing them get sick, we are not sure what else is to follow.”

Arway says each summer, oxygen levels in the water are so low that the fish are susceptible to disease and die, all because algae is growing at rates never before seen. He says chemicals could be to blame for fish changing gender.

“That's not normal in nature, but we are seeing it in the Susquehanna,” Arway said.

Arway's plan is to declare the Susquehanna an “impaired” river, a move that will start the clock on looking for the source of the problem. But the declaration is not his call. It's up to the Department of Environmental Protection, and Arway says that department is dragging its feet.

“We believe the science supports our conclusion that the river is sick and impaired,” Arway said. “I am not sure why its taking DEP longer to reach that conclusion.”

“Why don't we have this designation up to this point? Right now, the science doesn't support the designation,” said Kevin Sunday, a DEP spokesman.

While it may sound like DEP isn't exactly hooked on the idea, officials insist they have been and will continue to monitor the issue.

“Right now, we are trying to figure out what exactly is the problem and build ourselves up from there,” Sunday said. “If we say it's impaired without any justification then we've just done nothing to solve the problem.”

“We have shared all our data with them. We believe that shows the science that shows the river is sick,” Arway said. “They concluded the river is not sick.”

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