[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]


Outdoor Trails:
Study paints disturbing picture of Pennsylvania's vanishing native fish
Intelligencer Lancaster
(Copyright 1998 Lancaster Newspapers)

They have fascinating, imaginative names. Bigmouth buffalo, ghost shiner,
mountain madtom, burbot, threespine stickleback, hornyhead chub, longhead
darter, spoonhead sculpin, mooneye.

Unfortunately, their life stories are not as pretty as their names.

Pennsylvania's new list of endangered, threatened and in-trouble fish
includes 61 species. That's about 40 percent of all our native fish.

Three, the silver lamprey, spoonhead sculpin and deepwater sculpin, are
believed to have disappeared since the last list was made.

Those who care if our natural heritage vanishes before our eyes hope the
new list awaken people, make them care. And it is hoped state and federal
regulatory agencies will more closely guard what's put into our streams,
rivers and lakes.

"We're hoping that maybe this will shake things up a little bit,'' says
Dave Argent, a Penn State graduate research assistant who conceived of
and help coordinate the study.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is expected to approve the new
list when it meets this weekend in Camp Hill.

Prompted by the federal Endangered Species Act, Pennsylvania first
compiled fish in trouble in the early 1980s. The listing was largely
based on several ichthyologists--people who study fish--sitting down and
comparing notes, much of it anecdotal.

Sometimes the presence of fish was only determined when they turned up in
the stomachs of predatory fish.

This time around, there was an exhaustive two-year study of the state of
the fish in Pennsylvania.

The PFBC pulled 11,000 records from stream surveys. Records were also
examined from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the National
Museum of Natural History, the Academy of Natural Sciences in
Philadelphia, the Penn State Fish Museum and the collections of three
colleges, including Penn State.

A ranking system was created to determine the relative rarity of each
species based on the numbers of each fish and how many locations they
were found in.

One result is that the number of fish in trouble has grown from 46 to 61
species. Some 33 species are listed as endangered, the most serious
ranking, meaning they are on the edge of vanishing from the commonwealth.

There were some encouraging developments. 

In Monroe County, a Game Commission employee who likes to look for rare
fish as a hobby sampled a stream and turned up a couple dozen ironcolor
shiners, a small fish thought to have died out.

The river redhorse, a western Pennsylvania sucker with large molar teeth
capable of crushing freshwater clams, was thought to be in trouble. But
so many were found it was taken off the list.

Two species of darters were downlisted from endangered to threatened, and
two lampreys improved from threatened to "candidate'' status.

In some heavily industrialized areas, such as the Ohio River drainage in
western Pennsylvania, stream quality is improving to the point rare fish
are re-colonizing.

That's because steel plants are closed down, industry in general has
slowed and the federal Clean Water Act is tougher, says Andrew Shiels,
the PFBC's herpetology and endangered species coordinator.

But acid mine drainage in the same region has taken out many miles of

The overwhelming majority of our troubled fish are found in the Ohio
River drainage. That's because the waterways have the greatest diversity
of fish.

French Creek and its tributaries in Crawford County have more variety of
fish than any other stream in Pennsylvania.

Rivers such as the Ohio and Allegheny used to flow north. But glaciers
reversed the flow, trapping many northern species of fish.

Also, the Mississippi River, which the Ohio drains into, has more
diversity of species than any river in the U.S. Each successive land
barrier fanning out from that mother lode reduces the diversity.

Thus, the Ohio has more types of fish than the Susquehanna, and the
Susquehanna has more than the Delaware.

The smallest fish, in the darter family, are a mere couple inches long.
The Atlantic sturgeon can grow to more than 9 feet and live 60 years.

Here in Lancaster County, the bridal shiner and silverjaw minnow have
long disappeared. The log perch and pearl dace are rare. And such fish as
creek chub sucker, shield darter, comely shiner and satin-fin shiner are
declining rapidly.

There are many causes for the decline of Pennsylvania's native fish, all
man-made: deforestation, runoff of silt and manure, industrial pollution,
cows destroying stream banks.

Most of the fish on the troubled list will be unfamiliar to most
residents of Pennsylvania.

Only several "sport'' fish are on the list. The Atlantic sturgeon, which
used to spawn in the Susquehanna, is on it. So is the hickory shad, which
still makes healthy spring runs on the Susquehanna below the Conowingo
Dam in Maryland. I caught and released 30 in a few hours last Friday.

Also listed is the cisco, a fish in the salmon family which once thrived
in Lake Erie and is still highly prized in Canada.

But most of the fish are diminutive and obscure.

But fascinating. The mooneye and goldeneye, herring-like fish that need
clear rivers and lakes, are the only members of a primitive order of fish
in the northern hemisphere. All the others live in tropical regions of
the world.

Many of the disappearing fish can tell us what we humans are doing to
mess up our own nest.

The eastern sand darter, for example, disappears when silt is introduced
into a stream. Not surprisingly, it is endangered.

The northern madtop is considered a "marker'' fish and is one of the
first to disappear with ecological disturbance.

Unlike federal law, there are no state laws that specifically protect
endangered fish or their habitat. But the new listing may lead to more
protection of certain waterways, says Shiels.

Both the PFBC and state Department of Environmental Protection review
permits for what's discharged into waterways. And the presence of rare
fish in a stream may lead to some streams getting a more protective
water-quality rating, or get them earmarked for cleanup.

Why care if these fish disappear? After all, with a few exceptions, we
don't eat them, and chances are we would never see them, even if they
were thriving.

"People should know that each time one of the species disappears, whether
they realize it or not, part of their natural heritage is gone,'' argues


""They may not miss that species but their grandchildren may, and the
animal up the food chain may suffer because of it. For example, shiners
could lead to a decline in smallmouth bass or trout, or ospreys.


""By the time it shows up in the showy species, it's too late.''

Robert Rice
Help Preserve our Aquatic Heritage join the Native Fish Conservancy
 at our website  www.nativefish.org