Fishing and swimming in the Oconee River are summertime staples in southeast Georgia, but recently many people in the area have been led to believe that the river is not safe for fish or people. In light of these concerns, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division along with the Environmental Protection Division and scientists from Auburn University have conducted research on fish and the quality of the river water – and to this point, there is no need for alarm.
“We want citizens to understand that we are aware of their concerns and that we are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of the water and the health of the fish,” says John Biagi, Fisheries Chief for the Division. “Right now, we do not see a need to halt fishing or any other water activity on the river.”
Local concern with the health of the river and the fish were first brought to the attention of Division personnel in early June. Sportsmen indicated that they thought they were seeing a relatively high number of diseased (red sores or a white “cotton” appearance) fish, especially in the area of the Oconee River near Dublin.
Immediately following these raised concerns, Division personnel began “sampling” (electro-shocking the water and taking samples of various fish species) the Oconee River fish population in order to assess the occurrence of fish diseases. Fish were collected from Beaverdam Wildlife Management Area (about 9 miles north of Dublin) down river to Pete Davis Landing, near Mount Vernon. These fish samples were provided to Auburn University Fish Disease Laboratory for evaluation. Preliminary results indicate that the diseases seen on these fish are commonly present in fish populations throughout Georgia and the southeast.
Additionally, the Environmental Protection Division (Watershed Planning and Monitoring Program) collected water and sediment samples from two locations along the Oconee River. According to their analysis, organic compounds and metal concentrations both were below minimum detection limits, further emphasizing the safety of the river.
So, what might be causing this large number of fish to appear unhealthy? Many things can cause such outbreaks. Environmental conditions such as water temperature and extreme drought concentrate fish in warmer, smaller bodies of water. Parasites and bacteria flourish in the spring and summer – often before fish immune systems are at their peak. Spawning (reproducing) activities, occurring in spring and summer, create additional stress and reduce natural immune responses.
“A combination of natural issues - drought, naturally occurring bacteria and fish stressed from spawning - could all lead to this somewhat unusual concentration of fish that appear unhealthy,” says Biagi. “And while these fish may look unpleasant, none of the pathogens we are finding pose a threat to public health.”
The Division, along with EPD and Auburn University intend to continue collecting and analyzing fish samples from the Oconee and surrounding rivers to continue to monitor the health of the fish.
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