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Discussion Starter · #23 ·
Brian O'Neill
Rivers are cleaner -- you can count on it
Thursday, June 03, 2010
By Brian O'Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Biologists refer to the Missouri, the Mississippi and the Ohio as the "Great Rivers," and that last one, of course, begins right here in Pittsburgh.

There's a lot we don't know about what's in our rivers, which is one reason Rick Spear gets to work each morning at 6:30. It has been his job in recent years to pull tiny critters and fish out of the Ohio, the Allegheny and the Monongahela and tally what we've got.

An aquatic biologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection, Mr. Spear has an office on Washington's Landing (still Herrs Island to old Pittsburghers.) He walked with me Wednesday morning from there to his real workplace, the Allegheny, and as songbirds sang around us he told me what he has learned.




Brian O'Neill's book, "The Paris of Appalachia: Pittsburgh in the Twenty-first Century," is available in the PG store.

For one thing, all those people who told Mr. Spear a few years ago that he'd never find mussels in the Monongahela should shut up.

In 2008, a DEP team found 148 individual mussels of seven species. The following year, six of those seven species also were found in the Allegheny -- along with a dozen more mussel species.

Fish are returning, too. You probably knew that; these recurring bass tournaments are kind of a giveaway. But the more detailed data show that while there were only eight species of fish in the Mon around Braddock in 1968, there were 24 species found in 2008. Likewise, the number of species jumped from 22 to 36 in the Allegheny near Kittanning during that four-decade span.

All the Latin tongue-twisting names attached to the creatures can be translated into just two English words: healthier rivers.

What we lack, though, is context. There is precious little data on what was living in our rivers 100 or more years ago. Attending hearings for dredging permits and such over the years, Mr. Spear has heard a lot of conjecture and speculation about what was in the rivers without much to back it up.

So he's complementing his hands-wet research with forays into very dry text. Mr. Spear and his colleague, Blaine Snyder, are researching the articles and journals of Dr. Arnold Ortmann, the German-trained scientist who studied the waters of Western Pennsylvania and declared in 1909 that disappearing mussel species constituted "the first sign of pollution of a dangerous character in a stream."

So the mussel's comeback marks a river resurgence -- not that the waters are all the way back or home free. One toxicity test turned up a trouble spot in the Allegheny around the Clemente Bridge. And American Rivers, a national river advocacy organization, declared on Wednesday that the Mon is the ninth-most-endangered river in the country because of the potential for mishaps in Marcellus shale gas well drilling.

High concentrations of dissolved solids and chemicals from the drilling are the fear there. In the summer of 2008, the DEP team gathered data on pollutants that were used later in the year to show that levels had risen due to coal mining discharges.

Back in his lab, Mr. Spear showed me the shells of some mussel specimens, and these freshwater mussels didn't appear much different than the kind served on pasta across the river in the Strip District, just a little bigger.

One species, popularly known as the pink heelsplitter, shone a surprisingly vibrant pink when opened.

"Who'd a thunk you could find something that pretty in one of our rivers?" mused Helen Humphries, the DEP's community relations coordinator.

That was a revelation to me, as was news that these mussels can live 50 to 120 years, as was the way they get around: hitchhiking on fish.

Adult mussels send extensions from their shells that look like tiny fish. When bigger fish are lured in, thinking they see food, the mussel spits larvae at them. The larvae attach to the gills, live for weeks, and when they grow big enough they drop off and thus spread through the river system.

That's good because mussels filter particles of waste from the rivers. (That trait includes the invasive zebra mussels that have wreaked havoc here and elsewhere in American waters, growing on anything hard, including native mussels and crayfish, and out-competing them for food. But the data suggests our native mussels are managing despite the invaders.)

"It's really telling us good things," Mr. Spear said of the study.

It should. They certainly put enough mussel into it.

Mr. Spear and his colleague, Kevin Halloran, will be part of an environmental tour of the three rivers on Friday afternoon. It's part of World Environment Day, for which Pittsburgh is the North American host.

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Discussion Starter · #26 ·
I'd have to go look, but length wise, it was likely a long nosed gar. Weight wise, a bigmouth buffalo (from memory).

Did see a huge musky come in to the current near Monessen, but it dove before anyone could grab it. It would have been the biggest with both length and weight.
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