As I write this, it's another beautiful day, the sky an endless blue without a cloud in sight. And that's the bad news. The Commonwealth is currently withering under a protracted drought. Sportsmen across Pennsylvania have been leaders in heeding Governor Ridge's declaration of a drought emergency and in conserving water resources. My hope is that we have received some additional rainfall by the time this message reaches you. However, even though a few showers may ease conditions, it will take substantial rain over an extended period until we can consider this cycle to be at an end.

Throughout the summer, we have received many questions related to drought and its effect on fish and fishing. Many callers are worried about fish populations. Some have expressed frustration, an understandable reaction to climatic systems largely beyond human control. In expressing their concerns for the resource, some have called on the Fish and Boat Commission to ban or limit fishing for certain fish in certain waters. The concern that anglers have expressed is another example of the profound responsibility that sportsmen have traditionally felt for conserving our natural resources.

Both as agency staff dedicated to protecting and managing aquatic resources and as individuals who personally care about our fisheries, we understand the very sincere concern that anglers have expressed. When the Commission's professional fisheries managers recommend against banning fishing in droughts, it's because they have concluded that a ban is not the best way to protect and manage this resource in these circumstances. In certain circumstances, limiting fishing is counterproductive for overall fish populations.

Given the emotional connection that we each feel to the sport, favorite waters and our fisheries, it is sometimes difficult to remember that droughts and, conversely, floods are just two of many natural ecological processes that have occurred on this planet for as long as there has been water. Through it all, fish have not just survived, but thrived in Pennsylvania waters. They will continue to do so. Our biologists report that even though the drought may have localized effects on individual fish and other aquatic organisms, it is unlikely to have any long-term effect on fish populations or fishing. Studies of wild trout populations on several streams after drought conditions in 1991-92 showed some effects on some streams. While localized populations may suffer negative effects, populations quickly bounce back even from severe droughts.

Sportsmen are perhaps better attuned than others to understand mortality as part of the cycle of nature. We know that many fish do not survive their first year. Even those that do survive continue to face a variety of threats daily, such as predators and competition for food and habitat. Because these natural hardships are routine, we have come to accept these effects as normal. Extreme conditions such as drought are, fortunately, not routine. However, we must remember that they are no less natural.

It is certainly disappointing that this drought has disrupted the typical feeding and holding patterns in many waterways. It is discouraging that more fish than usual have succumbed to the elements. But in the long run, it is unlikely that this year's problems will translate into long-term declines in fish or fishing.

The current drought has actually had positive effects for species like the smallmouth bass. The reduced flows, stable water levels and warmer water temperatures have led to higher levels of natural reproduction and generally an easier time for young-of-the-year bass. The 1999 smallmouth bass year class is very strong and the fish are growing ahead of schedule, which should provide for enjoyable bass angling in a few years.

Even in areas that experience drought-related fish kills, there are some benefits. Mother Nature is not wasteful: The carrion feeds scavengers, which in turn serve as a continuing link in the food chain.

We can expect a hard freeze on some lakes and ponds before water levels return to normal. This freeze of exposed shorelines is useful in controlling excessive growth of unwanted weeds. In fact, some lakes are deliberately artificially lowered to take advantage of this very circumstance.

I hope that fall 1999 will mark the end of the drought, and that by the time you read this, plentiful rainfall will have fallen across our Commonwealth.

Fall 1999 will also mark possible consideration of legislation that will address the Commission's longstanding infrastructure improvement initiative. I have previously written about this effort in this space. The Pennsylvania General Assembly is now considering legislation that may provide revenue to address critical infrastructure needs. As this legislation moves through the legislative process, there will undoubtedly be changes and adjustments. As I write this, one bill (House Bill 1200) contains provisions known as the Growing Greener Plus, or Heritage 21 Initiative. These provisions include much-needed funding to address urgent infrastructure needs to repair dams, upgrade fish hatcheries, rehabilitate access areas and acquire critical habitat. However, other versions of related legislation do not contain funding to address Commission infrastructure needs. The key challenge that anglers, boaters and conservationists face is to make sure that the final version of any legislation in this area includes funding to address our critical infrastructure needs. Pennsylvania Angler & Boater readers make up an important core of support for the Fish and Boat Commission and its programs. Grassroots support for including funding for Commission capital projects is essential, and I hope you will let your legislators know of your interest in, and support for, funding to address the backlog of Commission infrastructure projects.

Peter A. Colangelo
Executive Director
Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission

PDF file of this article

September/October 1999 Table of Contents

Copyright notice

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Web Privacy and Security Policies