Swayed by the concerns of many Pennsylvania anglers, the state’s fishery managers decided Tuesday not to lift a springtime ban on smallmouth bass fishing in the middle and lower Susquehanna and lower Juniata rivers.
The eight-member Fish & Boat Commission voted unanimously to extend the spawning season catch ban for at least another year, requesting more evidence of the strength of the bass population recovery in those waterways.
“We felt that it did no harm not making a decision this year based on science and on public opinion,” said John Arway, the commission’s executive director. “Over 50 percent of our public comments were that they didn’t want to see the season opened. We will continue to watch the river and the condition of the fishery.”
The commission had proposed in January to lift the ban in 2018, based on surveys by state biologists finding increasing numbers of healthy bass on a 98-mile section of the Susquehanna and 31 miles of the Juniata.
Since 2012, bass fishing has been prohibited from May 1 to June 16 in the two rivers’ affected sections. The ban was prompted by a precipitous decline in numbers of the popular sport fish following major fish kills in 2005 and a years-long outbreak of disease.
Only about 37 percent of the 179 public comments received on the proposal favored lifting the spawning season fishing ban.
Joe Raymond, owner of Susquehanna Smallmouth Guides based in Harrisburg, originally wanted to see the ban lifted. But he said Tuesday that he had changed his mind even before the commission vote, worried that the bass population might buckle under the suddenly increased fishing pressure.
“It’s good news for the bass. It’s good news for smallmouth,” he said. “I was actually on the other side of the fence for years; I couldn’t stand it. I’m a guide, and it was killing my businesses.”
Now, Raymond said that he wishes other states - particularly Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia - would follow Pennsylvania’s lead and impose similar limits on bass fishing. Seasonal bans and regulations requiring the immediate release of any smallmouth caught would relieve some of the pressure on their populations, he said. Pennsylvania enacted a year-round catch-and-release requirement on the affected sections of the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers a year before the spring ban was in place.
Bass numbers have rebounded in the Susquehanna and Juniata, according to fisherman and the commission. But concerns linger over fish with a blotchy skin disease, viral and bacterial infections and parasites in the Susquehanna and other Bay region waterways. Federal and state scientists studying the issue have suggested the problems could be linked to herbicides and pesticides getting in the rivers, but no definite cause has been found. Research is continuing, with a multi-year study expected to be completed by the end of 2017.
“I agree that more research needs to be done, and the closed season should remain intact,” said Ted Evgeniadis, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and an avid fisherman. “It is a good idea. It does nothing but help.“
Brian Shumaker, a guide based in Pine Grove, said that he hopes the research will give the Department of Environmental Protection the data it needs to declare the Susquehanna’s waters impaired by pollutants. Arway and the commission have unsuccessfully petitioned the DEP for the designation and to put the river on a pollution diet, like the Chesapeake Bay.
“They (commission) really haven’t come out and said what caused the collapse and what’s causing the rebound,” said Shumaker, owner of Susquehanna River Guides. “I’m glad they are going to give those fish (protection during spawning season) to get a chance to do what they need to do.”