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Authorities seek answers in mass fish deaths

May 31, 2006|by KAREN HANNA

Fish deaths in parts of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers have attracted the attention of officials in at least three states.

According to Frank Panek, director of the National Fish Health Research Laboratory in Kearneysville, W.Va., workers plan to conduct analysis on river redhorse sucker fish, which were observed "stressed and dying" in the south branch of the Potomac River.

"Apparently, it was a fairly good-sized fish kill," Panek said.

Julie Oberg, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, and Larry Mohn, regional fisheries manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said workers in those states also were looking into die-offs of sucker fish.

Oberg said officials in Maryland believe the deaths they have observed are consistent with records of fish kills over the last 30 years.

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"This year could be considered an above-average year," she said Tuesday.

Mohn and a West Virginia official said Tuesday they did not believe the die-offs their staffs have reported are typical.

"What concerns us is this is very similar to what happened in 2002," when large numbers of sucker fish died up and down the Potomac River, said Bret Preston, assistant chief of the wildlife resources section of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

Mohn said Virginia game employees saw hundreds of dead northern hogsucker fish, which are related to the redhorse suckers, on the Shenandoah River about 15 or 20 miles upstream from West Virginia.

The incidents could be related, he said.

"These rivers have bounced back and forth with some fish health issues the last several years," Mohn said.

Suckers are bottom-feeding fish, Panek said. The redhorse suckers can grow up to 2 feet long, he said.

According to Mohn, the hogsuckers are smaller, with most growing to a size of 12 to 18 inches.

Neither are sport fish.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the die-off of sucker fish in 2002 was a naturally occurring phenomenon unrelated to pollution, The Herald-Mail reported at the time.

Panek, Preston and Mohn said their departments still are investigating unexplained fish die-offs and incidences of intersex condition, an anomaly in certain species of fish that causes the males to produce eggs.

"We have concerns with the water quality," Panek said.

Though the analysis of what killed the fish could be completed this week, Panek said investigations of previous die-offs so far have yielded nothing.

"It's always a crapshoot," Panek said. "You never know what you're going to find. Sometimes, you don't find anything."

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