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September 30, 2004

Striped bass may run from muddy waters

By RICHARD DEGENER Staff Writer, (609) 463-6711, E-Mail/Press of Atlantic City

CAPE MAY POINT - The worst flooding on the Delaware River since twin hurricanes a half-century ago is sending a wall of muddy water toward prime striped-bass fishing grounds.

The Delaware is almost 300 percent above its normal September flow after hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, and Tropical Storm Bonnie. It's the highest level since hurricanes Connie and Diane hit in August 1955.

The floodwaters, which one bass fisherman called "chocolate waters," have not yet gotten into the main body of the Delaware Bay, and it remains unclear what sort of impact they could have. The bay is a lot bigger and a lot deeper than the river, but it's been a long time since this much sediment was transported to the bay, so nobody is quite sure what to expect.

"The bay in inherently dirty anyway. It may make a difference or it may not," said Fred Ascoli, a Port of Cape May party-boat captain and marina owner.

Fish flee highly turbid - or muddy - waters, and Ascoli said this might keep the stripers closer to the ocean this year. That would suit him just fine.

The season generally starts around Oct. 10 as fishermen steam up to calmer bay waters where they attract the fish by throwing in bait. That is the part of the bay likely to be affected first. In November, the fishermen move to the wild waters at the mouth of the bay, an area called "the rips," to catch the prized game fish.

"This could bunch all the fish in the lower bay. Obviously, if you're a Cape May or a Lewes (Del.) fishermen, you're going to be in heaven," Ascoli said.

It's all conjecture at this point, and striped bass are just one of the areas of concern. There are Delaware Bay oysters, worries about pollutants in the muddy waters, changes in water chemistry with less salt water in the bay, and even mild concerns that problems could linger during the spring shad run and spawning seasons for other marine life.

Tim Dillingham, who directs the Sandy Hook-based American Littoral Society, said it could be too much of a good thing. Some silts and sediments are necessary for an estuary to thrive, but too much can be a bad thing. Dillingham said the Delaware Estuary, bordered by New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, has become too urbanized, and that is why there is so much sediment in the water.

"Three hundred years ago the entire watershed was forested. The forest would retain water. Now it rushes into tributaries and into the river itself. Now it carries a plume of sediment and pollutants," Dillingham said.

Information compiled by the Delaware River Basin Commission shows many of the tributaries leading to the river are at or near flood stage. They already were swollen from remnants of hurricanes Bonnie and Frances when Tropical Storm Ivan brought more rains Sept. 18-20. Tropical Storm Jeanne brought even more water this week.

Chief Kurt Powers of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife's Bureau of Marine Fisheries said the natural flood event would bring some benefits to the bay.

"Turbidity has local, short-term impacts on fisheries, but fish will move somewhat, and there are a lot of nutrients with the silt. It adds primary productivity to the food chain," Powers said.

The flood may wash some petroleum byproducts, hydrocarbons, fertilizers and other pollutants into the bay, but Powers noted that it also scoured streambeds in natural areas - and this material is good for the ecosystem.

"That's good stuff - 55 years of trees and leaves and streambed material. The displacement of fish is offset in the long term by the nutrients coming down," Powers said.

Most Delaware Bay fish spawn in May and into June; Powers expects the sediments to settle by then. Shellfish, such as oysters, can move vertically so they can rise above any materials that come into the beds.

Fishermen know the bay always has a lot of sediment anyway, and the winds are the key to whether it hurts fishing. Cape May charter boat Capt. Rick Shepanski notes that it takes two or three days to clear up after cold fronts bring strong northwest winds. Shepanski is not sure what the flood will do to striper fishing, but said he would go out either way when the water hits about 65 degrees.

"We'll find out," Shepanski said.

DEP spokesman Fred Mumford said flood events are one reason the agency pushes so many policies - from opposing impervious surfaces to favoring large wetlands buffer zones. Powers said this event underscores the importance of wetlands, which absorb water and trap silt during floods.

Satellite images show muddy water flowing out of rivers all over the eastern seaboard. The National Weather Service reported that 48 flood gauges they monitor between Florida and New York were near flood stage and 58 were above flood stage.

The waters also are carrying debris into the bays. J. Lee Cox, whose Pennsylvania firm Dolan Research is working on the local beach-replenishment project, was at the Delaware Memorial Bridge on Wednesday, and said he'd never seen so much debris in the water.

"You could about walk across the river on the debris. It's slowly going downstream with each tide," Cox said.
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