Troubled Waters in the Shenandoah

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 20, 2005

BENTONVILLE, Va. -- It's quiet on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River here, save for the steady sound of rain dimpling the surface of the water.

A canoe shop near the river's edge is stocked with a rainbow of recreational equipment -- red kayaks, orange life jackets, yellow plastic inner tubes -- waiting for the weekend or a sunnier day to bring crowds of people.

But business is down this summer, said Trace Noel, owner of Shenandoah River Trips.

Normally, regular customers would return week after week toting buckets of minnows or live shiners in their rented canoes to fish the nationally renowned waters for smallmouth bass.

This year, a fish kill wiped out as much as 80 percent of the adult smallmouth bass population, the third major strike in four years affecting rivers in the region. And though nobody has identified a clear cause, the trend raises new questions about the quality of water that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.

"The entire upper mileage of the Potomac River watershed is sick," said Jeff Kelble, 33, a full-time fishing guide based in Boyce, near Winchester, who travels two hours to the lower Potomac and small rivers where he can still find popular game fish. Some guides who spend lots of time on the Shenandoah said the water quality is deteriorating, while others said it has always been poor.

Starting in April, while they were spawning and their immune systems were suppressed, smallmouth bass, as well as redbreast sunfish, began developing lesions. Locals described them as cigar burns or canker sores.

Before long, dead fish could be seen floating in the river. The same sequence occurred last spring on the North Fork of the Shenandoah, and two years before that on the South Branch of the Potomac.

If nothing else happens to the river, it still could take several years for the young fish, which were passed over in the kill, to grow large enough to interest anglers.

"This is not a typical fish kill," said Steve Reeser, a fish biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. A more typical kill can be traced back to a source of pollution such as a chemical spill or a pipe from a sewage treatment plant.

"Those are things that are easy to manage or regulate," Reeser said.

The state Department of Environmental Quality, the lead agency investigating the case, sent live fish with lesions to pathologists and fish disease specialists, who could not find a particular virus or cause of death but confirmed that the fish had been subject to environmental stress.

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