July 27, 2008

Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa., Joe Gorden Column

By Joe Gorden, Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

Jul. 27--Those who have been around the Cambria-Somerset area for years cannot help but notice the improvement in our rivers.

The Stonycreek provides more fishing and boating recreation every year and the Little Conemaugh, though it remains aesthetically ugly, has improved considerably from a chemical standpoint.

Those advances are the result of a lot of work done by partnerships between local volunteers, state and federal agencies and area conservationists. Their work has been mirrored by watershed groups throughout western Pennsylvania, and the cumulative effects have made an impact.

Another form of validation for the many hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested came earlier this month at the last meeting of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, where the commissioners voted to remove several fish from the state's threatened species list.

Perhaps the most noticeable of those is the smallmouth buffalo, a type of sucker that ranges throughout the Mississ-ippi River drainage.

Leroy Young, director of the fish commission's Bureau of Fisheries, reported that smallmouth buffalo got almost no mention in fisheries survey records during the 1900s, but has suddenly shown up in sizable numbers since the turn of the century. It has now become common in the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, which led to a recommendation that the smallmouth buffalo's official status be changed from threatened to secure.

Likewise, Young observed that the river redhorse be reclassified from threatened to secure. Prized by those who fish for suckers, the redhorse inhabits clean, flowing water in the St. Lawrence, and Mississippi drainages.

It was never abundant here, Young said, but is now found regularly during surveys. He reported that the river redhorse was found in 2002 in the Shenango River, its first recorded occurrence there since 1933.

The longnose gar is another fish that seems to be on the rebound. Once widespread in the Ohio drainage and elsewhere on the East Coast, it all but disappeared long ago from the Delaware watershed and became rare in western Pennsylvania.

Now, it is routinely found in the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, and can be expected to soon work its way back up the Conemaugh, where it was once a common catch.

Recommendations from the fish commission staff and the commissioner's vote to change the status on those three species of fish was considered little more than updating the books by most observers. And, to those whose focus is on bass or trout with no consideration about habitat or fisheries health, it is an insignificant occurrence.

But, that change in status of those three species is important to those who care about the environment, and especially to the individuals who are working to protect and improve it.

The fact that smallmouth buffalo, redhorse suckers and longnose gar are coming back is an indication that our rivers are gradually reverting to where they were when the first settlers rode into the Conemaugh Valley on horseback and began to cut timber from the hillsides to sell downriver.

We can only imagine what our rivers were like then, and we will never know for sure.

But, as the water gets cleaner, each native species that returns brings us a step closer to that historical perspective.

While its true that few of us will ever fish for buffalo, redhorse or gar, the fact that they are back bodes well for the gamefish and panfish that most fishermen favor.

Joe Gorden is the outdoors writer for The Tribune-Democrat.


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Copyright (c) 2008, Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

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