State deems Oconee fish safe after further tests

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has finished analyzing tissue samples of fish taken from the Oconee River last year and found no major concerns, fisheries officials said this week.

The testing was prompted by the concerns of fishermen around Dublin and the Altamaha Riverkeeper advocacy organization about numerous fish with parasites, bleeding lesions and other signs of disease last spring and summer. The Oconee flows into the Altamaha River.

Late last summer, state officials announced preliminary findings that the Oconee was safe, but water and fish-tissue testing continued.

The Altamaha Riverkeeper last month warned people to be cautious in using the Oconee or eating fish from it because the organization had conducted water sampling that showed elevated bacteria levels.

The state Environmental Protection Division conducted similar water quality tests at six Oconee River locations between October and April without finding any results as high as the Riverkeeper’s, said Jeremy Smith, EPD unit coordinator for watershed monitoring.

“And the numbers (the Riverkeeper) sent us were not violations of the water quality standard, so for us it’s not a big red flag,” he said.

Bryant Bowen, a DNR fisheries biologist based in Waycross, said DNR officials haven’t heard complaints this year about Oconee River fish. He said that during routine annual sampling last fall, the fish seemed back to normal. “We definitely think the drought was the major cause,” Bowen said. “When you have repeated droughts like we have, you get a cumulative effect.”

The state weathered severe droughts twice in the past decade, with the 2007-08 drought being one of the most severe in Georgia’s recorded history. Rainfall began to return to normal late last year.

Kim Tyler, a member of the Laurens County Sportsman Club, said she has heard of no fish with sores being caught this year.

“People continue to use the river, but they are more cautious than they have been in the past,” she said. “I can understand climate has an effect on fish and water, but I also understand there are other stresses on the river that are not natural stress.”

The DNR took hundreds of fish samples at five locations in the Oconee, as well as locations in the Ocmulgee River for comparison, then sent them to Auburn University for a detailed analysis. Scientists at Auburn examined the fish livers for damage and tested game fish for mercury and metals, Bowen said.

None of the samples came back with higher levels of mercury or metals, he said. Of the 15 species whose livers were tested, only one — suckers –— showed any statistical difference between the two rivers. The Oconee samples were slightly worse.

All the samples rated no worse than a 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the worst, Bowen said.

Biologists also compared the samples from the Ocmulgee and the Oconee upstream of Dublin with those downstream, finding only the bream were a little worse downstream. “But that was still within what you’d see from a natural occurrence,” Bowen said. He noted that the river’s characteristics change at Dublin as the river spreads out and becomes slower.

Fish diseases and parasites, which tend to thrive during the warm seasons anyway, can increase when water is shallower.

Auburn scientists also took gill samples from the fish and found no problems.

“Gills are where you’re going to see an immediate effect from pollution,” Bowen said.

He said he anticipates the state will issue a final report on its findings this summer.

Bert Deener, another DNR fisheries biologist, said although the fish sampling didn’t turn up major problems, it taught the DNR more about the effect of extreme weather conditions on fish populations.

But James Holland, Altamaha Riverkeeper, expressed skepticism.

“They want to use the drought as an excuse,” he said. “What we have to do is make sure we don’t allow pollutants to enter the river so there’s not a problem when there is a drought.”

Smith said the EPD sampled water for fecal coliform bacteria, temperature and acidity, and several other measures.

“There were differences between the sampling points, but not significant differences,” he said.

“The only thing I can say is it appears their sample points aren’t as near possible sources as ours,” Holland said. He said he sampled at the discharge pipes from several industrial facilities, including the SP Newsprint recycling plant, the Dublin sewage treatment plant and near the Mohawk Industries carpet factory.

Holland said he and EPD officials are trying to work out a meeting, at which he’d like to ask EPD to sample at the same places or conduct joint sampling there with the Riverkeeper, sending the samples to different labs for comparison.

Smith said the EPD sampling points included spots a short distance downstream of SP Newsprint and Mohawk, but the EPD doesn’t usually sample directly at the plume before waste water mixes with the river water. He said the EPD would nonetheless consider such a request.

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.