HARRISBURG – Although Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologists have determined that smallmouth bass with black spots caught in some areas of the Susquehanna River pose no health threat to the fish or those who may consume them, the overall condition of the river is a concern to the agency.
So, with the statewide opening of bass season, Saturday, June 16, PFBC executive director John Arway is encouraging sportsmen to express their concern about the Susquehanna River and support the agency by contacting Department of Environmental Protection Agency secretary Mike Krancer and urging him to designate the Susquehanna "impaired" and to correct the water quality issues. This can be done by calling the DEP at 717-787-2814, by email at email@example.com  or by sending letter to the agency at Box 2063, Harrisburg, Pa. 17105.
For years, the Susquehanna River has been a great place to fish for smallmouth bass, and because the PFBC's motto is "Resource First," Arway has appealed to the Department of Environmental Protection for help. Among his concerns are the increased recent sightings of black spots on smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River Basin.
"That's one of the reasons we've been calling for the river to be designated impaired," Arway said. "We don't know why this condition is occurring in the river, and we need to move beyond research and begin some action before the entire fishery of the Susquehanna River collapses."
In 2007, an economic impact study of the Susquehanna River fishery, encompassing 136 miles of the Juniata and Susquehanna rivers, from Sunbury downstream to Holtwood Dam, revealed anglers and boaters using the river system brought $2.37 million into the economy.
This year, fishing license sales have had an 11-percent increase from last year, and the PFBC expects the state's most popular bass fishing spots to see a surge in use when the season opens next Saturday. Through June 4, anglers had purchased 683,031 licenses, an increase of 67,389 from the same time last year, and a basic resident license can be purchased for $22.70 at more than 900 retail locations across the state.
"We're very happy that license sales have continued to increase," Arway said. "Bass are already one of the most popular sportfish targeted by anglers.
"Because last year was unseasonably cool and wet, we think anglers are even more anxious to get out this year and make up for last year's lost days. Also, the start of bass season coincides with the end of the school year for most students and falls on Father's Day weekend, so this is expected to have a positive impact on participation as well."
Anglers are reminded that new PFBC catch-and-immediate release regulations apply to smallmouth and largemouth bass on the lower sections of the Susquehanna River below Sunbury and the Juniata River below Port Royal and into tributaries to points one-half river-mile upstream from the confluence.
"We know that deteriorating water quality is a significant factor contributing to the decline of the smallmouth bass population in portions of these rivers and we continue to work with other state agencies and conservation groups on the issue," Arway said. "At the same time, we can protect the existing bass population by reducing angling pressure on them."
While sportsmen should be concerned about the health of the Susquehanna River, finding black spots on bass is neither strange nor unusual. In fact, the PFBC has been aware of the situation on bass in the river for approximately 8-10 years.
There has been so much speculation about the cause of the black spots that the PFBC issued a statement earlier this spring confirming that similar spots have been previously observed on fish from other waters in the state and that the spots do not appear to harm the fish. In addition, because the spots are limited to skin discoloration, the fish are safe to consume under the state's general fish consumption guidelines.
"The condition is commonly known as 'blotchy bass' or 'black spot' and has been documented occasionally in various Pennsylvania waters since as early as 1980," PFBC deputy director of operation Andy Shiels said. "In fact, in 1986, a nationwide survey found that the condition was present in 11 other states, including New York, Delaware and Maryland."
Late last year, the PFBC started hearing from anglers late last year concerning the black spots, which most often are found on the head, lips, tail or fins. Melanin is a black pigment in the skin cells of fish and referred to by fisheries scientists as melanosis.
"It's not precisely known what causes the condition, but the bass that our biologists examined in previous years were generally healthy and in good condition," Shiels said. "While the appearance of these spots may be alarming, there is no harm to human health from consuming these fish."
Shiels added that the condition has not been linked to specific pollution events, nor is there any evidence to suggest that blotchy bass condition is related to the young-of-year smallmouth disease issues in the Susquehanna River and some of its tributaries that the PFBC and other agencies have been studying since 2005. PFBC biologists have documented the blotchy bass condition previously in Pennsylvania in the following waters:
Susquehanna River, 2011, 2006; Cowanesque Lake, Tioga County, 2003; Allegheny River, 1999; and Conneaut Lake, Crawford County; Presque Isle Bay, Erie County; Raystown Lake, Huntington County and several other waters, 1980s; and it was observed in New York's Hudson River during the 1980s, which resulted in a N.Y. fisheries biologist surveying other states about the condition.
According several fishing guides on the Susquehanna River, this condition occurs in bass even in the most pristine conditions. This has been confirmed by personnel at the Bass Pro Shops store in Harrisburg, who said that black spots have been observed on several of the bass in the store's aquarium, which is maintained to assure the highest water quality.
For information about bass waters in Pennsylvania, access the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission website at www.fishandboat.com .