Sudden Fish Kill Baffles Anglers

By: Whitney Holmes
By: Whitney Holmes

June 27, 2005

Some are calling it the quietest disaster in Virginia's history. A whole species of fish has been almost completely wiped out in just a matter of weeks.

Brian Trow, a Harrisonburg-based fishing guide, has been fishing on the North River all his life. On any given day he could catch as many as 100 fish, but not anymore.

"We had 60 fish days. The next week we had 30 fish days. The next week we had 20 fish days," signed Trow. "By about the third week in April is when we decided that we were no longer going to be taking clients on the water."

Trow had to move his business to the James River because the North River's main attraction, Small Mouth Bass, had suddenly and almost completely died out. The ones that remain are just barely hanging on.

"Anglers are seeing these fish that have sores on their sides and lesions. They look somewhat like someone took a cigar and burned the side of the fish," described Steve Reeser, a fishery biologist from the Department of Game and Inland Fishery (DGIF).

A fish's immune system is usually weak after the winter, but a large rain event in early April brought in contaminated run-off, which further weakened the fishes' immune systems, making them more likely to get sick.

"It's almost like this--I use the analogy [that it is like], if you or I don't get enough sleep and don't eat right, we'd get run down. [Then] we are more susceptible to catching a cold, and that's just what is [happening] with these fish," explained Reeser. "Fish are becoming stressed, and bacteria that is naturally found in the water is causing these sores."

Biologists say no single person or area is to blame for the contaminated run-off. Rather it is a widespread problem that requires a widespread effort to fix.

There are a number of "remedies that, should the people of the valley choose to pursue them, that could ameliorate some of the pollution going into the river," said Paul Bugas, a DGIF wildlife biologist.

If the river does not become healthy soon, not just the fish will suffer, but also the local economy and the memory of what used to be one of the most popular fishing spots on the East coast.

"It is like a death in the family. It's water you grow up fishing with your father and your grandfather and it may be decades before we have any of the type of the fish we had before," said Trow.

If the kill does not repeat, it will take as many as 10 years for the bass to rebound.

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