Fish Kills Have Developed More Slowly in 2008, Virginia Reports

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Richmond, VA — Fish kills are occurring in Virginia rivers again this year but have developed more slowly than in past years, according to ongoing studies by the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The severity of the kills in the Shenandoah River watershed may be more moderate this year, though fish kills in the upper James River watershed appear similar to those in 2007, the agencies reported today.

Fish kills and fish with lesions have been observed in the upper James River and some tributaries, including the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers. DGIF sampling on these rivers has confirmed recent anglers’ reports that 25 percent to 30 percent of fish have lesions.

There have been no problems reported on the mainstem Shenandoah River, though the upper North and South Forks of the Shenandoah have seen low numbers of affected fish this year. The sections of both forks that experienced kills in past years are reporting greatly improved catches this spring.

Though the fish kills each year apparently have followed the onset of warmer water temperatures during the spring, no cause for the fish deaths and lesions has been identified. The kills have not occurred after June in previous years. The Shenandoah River Fish Kill Task Force, chaired by DEQ and DGIF, began extensive investigations into the problem in 2005.

The number of kills began to increase this spring after stream temperatures rose in late May. Investigators have collected water and fish samples before and during the fish kills, and the same type of sampling has been conducted at other streams – in rivers with similar fish species but no fish kills. Laboratory processing of these samples may take several months.

Here is a summary of fish problems reported in 2008:

James River and tributaries

* The upper James River began showing signs of ailing fish in early April. Numbers of dead fish and fish with lesions – mostly smallmouth bass and sunfish – have increased since stream temperatures increased and stayed warm. Anglers are reporting that fishing remains slow, and many are seeing numerous dead fish on each trip. They also are seeing lesions regularly on the live fish they catch.

* For the first time, the Jackson River is experiencing fish kills. Anglers on the lower Jackson downstream of Covington are providing reports similar to those on the James. Fewer reports have been received from the Jackson than from the James, possibly because there are fewer fishermen on the Jackson.

* The Cowpasture River has generated fewer reports than last year, but the reports all include some lesions and dead fish.

* Craig Creek, a tributary of the James at Eagle Rock, has seen a small number of reports of dead fish and lesions. Fish kills have not been reported on this stream in past years.

Shenandoah River, and North and South Forks

* No problems have been reported this year on the mainstem Shenandoah River, downstream of Front Royal.

* Compared to past years, fairly low numbers of dead fish have been reported on the North and South Forks. Lesion rates of 10 percent to 20 percent have been reported in the past several weeks, primarily upstream of the Mount Jackson-Edinburg area on the North Fork and upstream of Elkton on the South Fork.

* Anglers on most sections of the Shenandoah are reporting excellent success and few fish with visible problems. In particular, the lower North Fork from Woodstock to the mouth is producing very good catches this year. The South Fork also is supporting excellent catches in areas that previously experienced fish kills. Sunfish and rock bass, whose numbers were reduced during the kills, appear to be recovering well.

DEQ and DGIF have set priorities for available funds and are coordinating a number of investigations this year. For example, studies in 2008 include sampling before, during and after fish kills in the rivers experiencing those problems. The investigation also is emphasizing rivers where fish kills have not occurred, expanded lists of chemical analyses with a focus on storm flows, and multiple fish health investigations.

The investigating agencies and the fish kill task force encourage the public to provide information on the location, number and type of fish found dead or sick in the Shenandoah and James river systems. 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. Information also can be emailed to fishreports [at] deq [dot] virginia [dot] gov.