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Sex and the single bass

December 23, 2004

Ever since the invention of the department store gift card, I've been able to complete my Christmas shopping early, so when Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau President Tom Riford sent me this disturbing story from The Washington Post, I had time to be appropriately alarmed:

"Male fish that are growing eggs have been found in the Potomac River in Maryland, a federal scientist said last week - indicating that a troubling pollution mystery in West Virginia has spread downstream toward Washington.

"'Nine male smallmouth bass, taken from the Potomac about 60 miles from the District, were found to have developed eggs inside their sex organs,' said Vicki S. Blazer, a scientist overseeing this research for the U.S. Geological Survey.

"The abnormal Maryland fish were caught near Sharpsburg in Washington County. Blazer, who works at a federal fish lab in West Virginia, said she examined their tissues on slides last week. 'They all have intersex,' Blazer said, using the scientific term for a condition in which animals have both male and female elements."

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This excerpt is of critical importance for two reasons: First, it takes up five inches of space that I would otherwise have to fill on my own. Second, males capable of giving birth? Aaiiieeee!

All right, so technically it doesn't say that, but if the males have two sets of you-know-what, it seems to me that it's a possibility. Logistically, it might be hard for a bass to impregnate itself. It probably would have to stand on a chair, or something.

Tom at the travel board seems to be optimistic about this. It has tourism potential, I suppose. Or perhaps it could even be nature's answer to the snakeheads. "OK, Snakehead, you might be able to walk on land and have teeth the size of guardrail posts, but we have two, count 'em two, sets of reproductive organs. How do you plan to depopulate us now?"

Scientists, however, act as if this is a big problem with huge ecological implications. Although with the Republicans in control of Congress, they should easily be able to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex largemouth.

At the least, it will make for some interesting conversations at the fish bars. Some bass will be crying in his beer, "Yup, it looks as though I'll be spawning solo again this year."

But we need to interrupt the merriment over fish that are keeping all their eggs in one creel, so to speak, to ask a very pertinent question: How did they notice this in the first place? I mean, who catches a fish and then inspects its sex organs? Somebody with a problem, that's who.

I wouldn't even know where to look. As anyone who has ever named a tomcat Suzie can attest, warm-blooded mammals are tough enough. But a fish? Figuring out boy-girl would be tough enough, much less whether the oysters come with a side of caviar. Sure will make you think twice at the restaurant, though. You order stuffed flounder and you don't know what you're getting.

I suppose it doesn't matter how they found it though, the fact is they did find it and now we have to deal with it. "It's not good news that there's something that feminizes male fish in your water," said Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

I should say not. The Bravo network gets hold of this and the next reality show is going to be called "Queer Eye for the Walleye." I have enough trouble just getting a fish off the hook, I don't need him complaining that the worm clashes with the jig.

Of course when you're messing around with hormones anything can happen, up to and including Barry Bonds. Scientists say this could be as simple as animal hormones washing downstream with manure or as complicated as, according to the Post, "human estrogen from women taking birth-control pills, which can pass through sewage plants untouched."

And if there's one thing we know about the Hagerstown treatment plant, it's this: It doesn't touch much. You saw what happened with the Antietam Creek this summer. Entire woodchucks could have made it through the city treatment plant without so much as a good brushing.

We're probably lucky that it's only same-sex fish we're talking about and not the Loch Bass Monster. But apparently the big-city press hasn't picked up on the "unpleasantness" at the ole sewage treatment plant, because they're still mainly blaming cows up in Hardy County.

So we'll just keep that our little secret. And meantime, if you're going down to the Potomac to fish, don't forget to take his and hers nightcrawlers.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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