Thursday, December 8, 2011

A True Story About the Collapse of a Fishery and It's Recovery : Part 3

*Disclaimer* What follows is my own personal experience in a sad situation. I have talked to local biologists about this , but I may not get all the facts absolutely correct. I hope my personal experiences shed light on the severity of a fish kill that hit very close to home for me and serve as a cautionary tale to those who don't follow rules intended to protect our waters from invasive species. Several factors could align and almost any body of water could experience something very similar or even worse.

You may want to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

Part Three : " Dead fish everywhere..."

Dead fish everywhere. That's what a friend told me in the Spring of 2003. We had seen the parasites. We knew there had been a winter kill of shad. We did not know the extent of the damage.

At the time it was unthinkable. The Striper fishery had been very good to us over the years. It was reliable and predictable , but also something we had taken for granted. Over a two month period during the Spring of 2003 almost all of the fish over 24 inches died. Parasitic copepods infested the big fish in astounding numbers , making it hard for them to eat. Coupled with a shad kill that made food increasingly hard for the fish to find , this brought about a massive kill that reduced the fishery to a shadow of it's former self.

Near the dam , there were ACRES of dead fish. Not one or two , but thousands of dead or dying fish. It was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. The smell was horrific. A rumor at the time claimed that the mass of fish had clogged the turbines at the dam , which was believable due to the number of dead fish. Forty pound fish could be seen floating , some looked to have been close to 50 before their untimely demise after months of malnutrition. Most of us were surprised by the number of big fish. We knew the fishing had been good , but were surprised by the potential that had been there. This only served to stoke the fires of our misery and anger.

Fingers were pointed , tempers flared. A lot people blamed it on various companies upstream that had possibly done some illegal dumping of one chemical or another. I think that would have been easier for some of us to accept than the sad truth. Our fish had been killed by a perfect storm of natural occurrences. Compounding our sense of helplessness was the fact that nothing could have been done to prevent this tragedy and there was no one to blame.

The big schools of trophy Striped Bass in Smith Mountain Lake had been reduced to a mass of putrid flotsam. I was heartbroken. I thought of selling my boat. I thought about taking up bass fishing. I even contemplated giving up fishing altogether. My favorite species , in my own backyard , was gone.

As Spring turned to Summer local anglers became increasingly distraught. Many quit fishing or targeted other species , believing that the Stripers were gone for good. As I thought about what I wanted to do , a sliver of hope appeared. Most of the small fish and a handful of bigger ones had survived the massacre. Was it possible? Should we try? Could we rebuild the fishery after such a huge setback?

Come back tomorrow for Part 4 to find out!

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