Fish Kill on the Shenandoah

Anyone intrested in hearing about what’s going on with Shenandoah this Spring is invited to attend a Potomac River Smallmouth Club meeting this Thursday (26th) that will be open to the public.

Map to the meeting place is on the website:

We will be hearing from Paul Bugas and Steve Reeser (VDGIF), and Ted Turner (DEQ) regarding the current issues with the Shenandoah watershed.

They will be talking to us about their current findings, and which direction their investigation is going. There will also be a powerpoint presentation…followed by Q&A…they WANT your input!

See if you can get a copy of the pres.
See if they’ll be willing to share copies of their presentations. I’d like to see it, but have a conflicting meeting (sadly one that doesn’t involve fishing or paddling or rivers).

  • Big D

Consider it done Derek.
They have a powerpoint presentation. Hopefully they’ll have hard copies of it…or maybe will email it to us.

Fish kill on the Shenandoah River
Go to this site for the 6/22 front page article from the Staunton News Leader

Gary Collins

Also unable to make meeting
as I’m working the graveyard shift in McLean that nite and the previous one, but I would like to see the Powerpoint if possible. From what I read in the news article from Staunton it sounded like Sunfish family members were those primarily effected. Does anyone know what kind impact the problem may have had on the small number of Muskie in the South Fork and Main Stem? After I gave myself major back problems early last year trying to drag my Pungo and gear up the slippery muddy bank from the Main Stem at my lot below the Warren Dam, it was looking like I might get down to serious Muskie hunting. The fishing club I let use my put in has built a new landing platform replacing the one destroyed by previous floods and I have left an extension ladder at the lot to use to get sure footing from the top of the bank down to the water. If anyone wants to join me, I’m likely to be trying for Muskie below the dam on Mondays.

Although I’m off work Sundays after I get back to the house (just off the South Fork in Front Royal) about 9-9:30am, other than possibly going to church I tend to be comatose til about the time I would normally be at work that nite. If you see a derelict roaming Front Royal late Sunday nite in a black Cherokee, checking all the aisles at the 24hr. Martin’s supermarket it is probably me.

Not getting on river this Monday.
My wife’s agenda for this Monday has changed a couple of times this week. It seems she has settled on us taking a teenage niece from NC staying with us and our 7 year-old thru Luray Caverns.

Reading between the lines on the VDGIF web site, it sounds like the area of the Main Stem below the Warren Co. power dam North of Front Royal is one of the best places along the Shenandoah(North Fork, South Fork, or Main Stem) to catch a Muskie. If any of you want to use my put in on the Big Bend some time when I can’t get out myself just email me for directions, etc. My own thinking is that if the Smallie (and other Sunfish) populations are suffering the Muskie that eat them may be more likely to bite on Bucktails or other lures or baits.

A full report…
THe PowerPoint presentation was very short last month at the PRSC meeting folks. Not really enough info to justify getting it. But Jeff Little, PResident of the club took predigious notes and had STeve Resser and others at VDGIF review them before posting over in

Here are his notes from the meeting with VDGIF officials:


Here are my notes from Steve Reeser’s part of the presentation.

Notes from VDGIF and DEQ Presentation on 2005 South Fork Shenandoah Fish Kill

The following is a collection of notes taken at the May 26, 2005 Potomac River Smallmouth Club meeting. The presentation described the investigation of the fish kill that has affected the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, starting in early April of 2005. The speakers were: Stephen Reeser (, fisheries biologist for Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Paul Bugas, fisheries biologist with the VDGIF, and Ted Turner (, environmental specialist for Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Steve Reeser was the first speaker to address the audience.

60% of the Smallmouth Bass in a recent (spring 2005) electroshocking survey on the Shenandoah River (Route 50) displayed lesions

The two major species that were affected were: Smallmouth Bass and Redbreast Sunfish

Other species that were affected to a much lesser prevalence included: Largemouth Bass, Bullhead Catfish, and suckers.

Similar fish kills occurred in the following rivers;

2002 South Branch Potomac River

2003 Cacapon River

2004 North Fork Shenandoah

2005 South Fork Shenandoah

The investigation is looking into many different possible pathogens including bacteria, virus, and algae.

The fish that have been affected with the lesions are still eating and spawning, but eventually die due to an inability to osmoregulate, or hold onto their electrolytes. This eventually causes the fish to suffocate.

The white chalky substance that has been reported on the shoreline rocks on the South Fork Shenandoah are dried up diatoms. The diatoms have had the right conditions to flourish recently, and algal blooms can affect water quality and stress fish.

Blue Green Algae blooms are also being considered as a possible cause. The blue green algae can produce toxins that could harm the fish.

The extent of the fish kill is the entire Shenandoah river system.

West Virginia Department of Natural Resources has been contacted, as the West Virginia section of the mainstem Shenandoah is likely to have been affected as well.

The reports of the fish kill started in early April from fishermen (actually, two fishing guides, and some fishermen).

There have been no reports of fish affected in the South Fork Shenandoah’s headwaters: the North River, South River, and Middle River.

A sample of live fish from the Grove Hill area of the South Fork Shenandoah was delivered to Dr. Steve Smith, a fish pathologist at Virginia Tech.

Dr. Smith’s report mentioned normal levels of parasites, internal organs that showed no signs of long term stress, and naturally occurring bacteria and fungus in the lesions on the fish. He attempted to culture the bacteria for further study, but was not successful in getting the bacteria to grow in the lab. All the fish collected had normal levels of lipids (fats) that indicated that they were healthy leading up to the formation of lesions.

The theory of a virus being the cause lacks some merit because with a virus, you would expect to see species that are more closely related affected. This has not been the case, as the Smallmouth Bass and Redbreast Sunfish are not closely related as species. Largemouth Bass and Smallmouth Bass are closely related, and the Largemouth Bass have not been affected as much as the Smallmouth Bass and Redbreast Sunfish. A unique virus has not been ruled out, but this investigation would be a long term research study and with the complexity of the study may not produce anything conclusive. However, this study is still being considered.

The timeline from onset of the lesion to death is around 4 to 5 weeks, but it is possible for fish to recover from the lesions.

There have been reports of dead fish on the North Fork Shenandoah again this year. To investigate, VDGIF recently completed an electroshocking survey in the Strasburg area of the North Fork Shenandoah. Of the approximately 50 Smallmouth Bass and several Sunfish shocked in that area, none had lesions.

Question from the audience: Is it safe to swim or paddle in the South Fork Shenandoah?

Answer: I defer to the Health Department. They can issue warnings if the bacteria count is too high. (There was some discussion on cleaning of abrasions caused during wading/paddling.)

The North Fork Shenandoah has displayed an increasing trend of phosophates.

The levels of ammonias and nitrates on the North Fork before and after the 2004 fish kill showed no change in concentrations.

A tool called a “virtual fish” for assessing contaminants in the river was used on the North Fork Shenandoah last year and showed no unusual organic water contaminants. Additional results from that study are pending.

The same tool was used on the South Fork Shenandoah this year, but the results have not been returned yet.

Many people have asked, “What are you testing for?”

There are 1000’s of organic compounds that you can test for. It is difficult to guess which ones to test for.

Question from the audience: What is the impact of the fish kill on the fishery?

About two thirds of the population (mostly adults), were lost last year on the North Fork Shenandoah. The South Fork Shenandoah fish kill is still ongoing, but probably half of them right now have been lost.

There will be an article in the Richmond Dispatch on 5 27 05 about the fish kill.

One positive piece of news: There was a very successful smallmouth bass spawn on the North Fork and South Fork Shenandoah in 2004. It is too early to tell if 2005 will also be a productive spawning year for bass.

Question from the audience: Is the outbreak generational?

Generally it is the adults (2 years and older) that are affected.

Graphs of the North Fork Shenandoah Smallmouth Bass population before and after the 2004 fish kill were displayed, and showed a dramatic decrease in adult population, and an increase in the numbers of juvenile Smallmouth Bass.

Another chart showing several rivers in Virginia (James, New, Shenandoah, Rappahannock, ect) was displayed and showed a decrease in the population of river Smallmouth Bass in all Virginia Rivers from 2003 to 2004.

The environmental conditions (drought and high water) was cited as a probable factor in the statewide decrease in river Smallmouth Bass populations.

Mr. Reeser reported that he plans on assembling an expert panel of fish physiologists, agrochemists, fish pathologists, phytologists/algael experts, and representatives from the fishing community to broaden the scope of the investigation. He has already contacted the Warmwater Streams Committee of the American Fisheries Society, looking to recruit the assistance of such experts. The EPA and USGS will also play a role in the investigation, as they did in the South Branch Potomac fish kill in 2002.

Another theory that has been looked into but doesn’t hold much promise is ammonia concentrations being high enough to cause the lesions. If that were the sole factor in the lesions being caused, you would see a decrease in the aquatic insects, which has not been the case. However, low concentrations of ammonia could be stressing fish and not affecting the macroinverts in the river. Also ammonia toxicity is greatly affected by increases in pH. We could be seeing stress levels in fish increase with low levels of ammonia. Ammonia concentrations are also affected by algae blooms/die-offs. More intensive ammonia sampling will be needed to determine if this variable may be causing stress and fish mortality.

An ongoing 2005 creel survey on the South Fork Shenandoah may be discontinued as the fish kill has affected fishing activity on the river.

Question from the audience: What causes the foam that accumulates in the eddy’s?

Answer: Two possible causes. 1. Man made: detergents the foam would have a perfumy smell, be slimy to the touch, and have an iridescence. 2. Fumic Acids from decomposing leaves the foam would be gritty to the touch, it would smell like mud or algae, and would not have the iridescence.

Don’t transport fish or water from one body of water to another! This is illegal for good reason: it can harm the fishery.

The lab in Leetown, WV is where they discovered the intersex smallmouth that came from the South Branch Potomac.

We still don’t know what is causing the intersex problem. Possible causes: antibacterial soaps, human birth control compounds. This is not a new problem. It has been known about in places like Lake Meade in Nevada and Great Britain for 10 years.

Question from the audience: Could it be caused from a new fertilizer?

Answer: That’s something we are looking into. That’s why we would have an agrochemist on the expert panel.

Question from the audience: Should we wash our boats after fishing the South Fork Shenandoah?

Answer: We don’t believe that fishermen are transferring whatever is causing the fish kill. We would see the same thing in all of the rivers that Virginia fishermen go to.

Ted Turner and Paul Bugas also presented info, and my notes from their portion of the presentation will be posted after they have a chance to review and correct the content of those notes.

Jeff Little

President, Potomac River Smallmouth Club

I know that it will be a while before fishing for adult smallmouth bass is good again on the Shenandoah watershed. That is a given. My major concern is that we do not know if it will materialize. We do not know what caused the death of so many adult smallmouth bass in the Shenandoah watershed over the last two years. In short, we don’t know how to prevent it from happening again! We need to bring attention to the issue without any pre-emptive bridge burning. We need to scream without assigning blame. Who knows what strange bedfellows we will have!