Still don’t know what is causing the fish to die

Story by Chris Graham

fish_study_2_220.gifWe know that fish kills in the Shenandoah, Cowpasture and James river systems have once again abated.
What’s so disturbing is that we have no idea why they have abated – and what causes the fish kills in the first place.
“These fish kills are very unusual and mysterious – and they just don’t fit the patterns of particular events where fish are killed,” said Don Kain, the co-chair of the Shenandoah River Fish Kill Task Force, which was formed in 2005 to try to figure out what is going on in rivers and streams in the Valley.
The task force includes representatives from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Friends of the Shenandoah, Friends of the North Fork and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
So far, all we know from the task force is this – fish kills in the local river systems affecting the adult smallmouth bass and redbreast sunfish populations have been reported dating back as far as 2002, with the 2005 fish kill taking out an estimated 80 percent of the populations on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

“Normally you at least have some material or inhospitable condition in the environment, and fish die pretty much all at once in one specific location. What’s happened here in the Shenandoah is we’ve had long-term fish kills in the spring months in each of the last three years – and what happens during those events is we really only lose a few fish at a time, but it happens over an extended time period. So the impact on the population is significant, but it almost goes unnoticed by folks,” Kain said in an interview on “The Augusta Free Press Show” last week.

The task-force effort has not been for naught even without the big answer that everybody has been looking for.

“We have evaluated water-quality data and done much more intensive samplings than we’ve ever done in the past to try to determine if there is a clear water-quality factor or culprit causing these fish kills,” Kain said. “We’re also looking at more subtle things – such as metals that might be accumulating over time in fish tissue, and also some things that are much more difficult to detect, and that could be an unknown biological pathogen, and that could be a virus or bacteria or fungus or even something that has not yet been found in this area, but might have been transported in some manner and shown up in our streams.

“If nothing else, we’re certainly getting a lot of data that is helpful for the folks studying the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries,” Kain said. “We have probably learned more about the Shenandoah in terms of its water quality, its fish communities, its aquatic insects and other aquatic life that live in the river over the last three to four years than any other rivers in the state. So that’s always good information – and it will tell us a lot about what’s going on with the river, not only with fish kills, but also with other types of problems and concerns.”


Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.

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