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Virginia Agencies Gear Up For Potential Fish Health Issues

March 28, 2008

Richmond, Virginia The Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries are directing numerous scientific studies and surveillance programs this spring in the western portion of Virginia in preparation for potential fish kills.

Unexplained fish kills and episodes of fish with sores and lesions have occurred during each of the last four springs in the Shenandoah River system. In 2007, similar events also occurred in the upper James and Cowpasture rivers.

The fish kills since 2004 have been unusual, affecting mainly adult smallmouth bass and sunfish. Slow fish die-offs have begun in early April and continued through May. Despite the efforts of many fish health and water chemistry experts, the causes of the fish kills remain unknown.

Studies by state and federal scientists and several university researchers during these fish kills have focused on water chemistry and the health of fish and other aquatic life. Water quality studies to date have targeted nutrients, ammonia and selected organic compounds, but they have not identified any specific chemicals at levels that would be expected to cause the fish kills.

Fish health findings suggest that multiple stressors may be involved, because the symptoms do not clearly indicate any single cause. Fish health and disease experts with the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cornell University and Virginia Tech have found gill, liver and kidney damage; large numbers of parasites; and signs of bacterial infection. Viral studies have ruled out the likely fish viruses. More detailed investigations focusing on biological sources of disease are planned for 2008.

Since 2004, state agencies and their partners have led multiple investigations into these fish kills. In 2005, DEQ and DGIF formed the Shenandoah River Fish Kill Task Force, an open group of stakeholders, including university and government scientists, environmental groups, fishing guides, and volunteer monitors. This group identified a list of theories on possible causes of the fish kills and methodically reviewed studies to test those theories.

In 2007, DEQ contracted with fisheries experts Dr. Greg Garman of Virginia Commonwealth University and Dr. Don Orth of Virginia Tech to lead a research advisory committee of experts in chemistry, water quality, toxicology, soils science and agriculture. The committee is an independent advisory panel to DEQ and has recently completed a recommended work plan for 2008.

Based on recommendation from the committee and the Fish Kill Task Force, DEQ and DGIF have set priorities for available funds and are coordinating a number of investigations. Studies in 2008 will emphasize additional non-fish kill sites, expanded water quality chemical lists with a focus on storm flows, and multiple fish health investigations.

Scheduled projects and lead investigators include:

* Expanded fish health study to evaluate organs, blood chemistry, parasites and tissue contaminants Virginia Tech and USGS.

* Watershed and fish kill contaminant profile Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

* Measuring pesticides, organic compounds and heavy metals in storm runoff James Madison University.

* Measuring organic compounds in the river during the spring using passive samplers, devices which allow measurement of chemicals that are normally not detectable using conventional methods - DEQ and USGS.

* Biweekly analysis of heavy metal concentrations in the rivers during the spring DEQ.

* Fish kill and fish behavior surveillance by volunteer citizen monitors task force, state agencies and citizens.

* DEQ and DGIF investigators also are participating in a coordinated study with USGS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection on additional fish health studies at several sites within the Potomac River watershed.

If any fish kills are observed this year, the task force encourages the public to provide information on the location, number and type of fish found dead or sick in the Shenandoah, Cowpasture and James river systems. Distressed fish are found mainly in eddies and shallow areas away from the main current.

Anyone with information is asked to call the DEQ regional office in Harrisonburg at (540) 574-7800, or toll-free in Virginia at 1-800-592-5482.


 

 
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