The reproductive cycle of fish in the Chesapeake Bay is unusual. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has found male fish in the Susquehanna carrying eggs. And intersex fish have been found. That is simply wrong.

The USGS is monitoring the Juniata River, Swatara Creek (which is a river-size stream) and other watersheds in the mid-Atlantic area. All show male fish with female sex features. Interestingly, the females do not show male attributes.

Farmers have shouldered most of the blame for pollution problems in the Chesapeake Bay. Conventional wisdom said it was manure runoff and chemical fertilizer in the bay watershed that was destroying fisheries. Nutrients were pouring down the Susquehanna from New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland into the watershed.

Many felt that farmers had to be stopped. This mantra, based on some solid scientific research, has been repeated for over a quarter of a century. To agriculture’s credit, much has been done about the situation.

Now comes Cleon S. Cassel, owner of Cassel Vineyards of Hershey in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, to say that manure is not the deep cause of the problem. Yes, he concedes, manure and fertilizer runoff caused problems in the past. But what is hurting the fishing industry – and will hurt it even more in the future – is the runoff of drug store medicines like estrogen from birth control pills, diabetes medications and other legitimate pharmaceuticals. Road salts are not helping. Neither are waste products from hospitals and pharmaceutical plants.

Cleon and his sons, Chris and Craig, all hold master’s degrees and all taught biology. Chris got his master’s degree studying stream runoff at mine sites, so he knows about sampling procedure and research in watersheds.

“This has become a terrible PR problem for farmers,” Cleon said. He would like to see groups like Farm Bureau expend more effort defending farmers and less bragging about crop yields increasing a few percentage points.

This spring, Chris took his biology classes from the Milton Hershey School out to sample every tributary to the Swatara near Hershey. His findings point to drugs and female hormones in the water. That, he said, is why the males show female attributes but not vice versa.

Others concur. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the (USGS) published work in 2009 based on the Potomac and other area watersheds that showed that at least 82 percent of male smallmouth bass and 23 percent of the largemouth bass had immature female germ cells (oocytes) in their reproductive organs.

“Our findings suggest that intersex is both more widespread than previously known, and, at least in the sampled streams, is not related to a single chemical or source,” said Vicki Blazer, a USGS scientist at the Leesville experimental stream lab in Kearneysville, West Virginia.

This condition, a type of intersex, is a disturbance in the fish’s hormonal system and is an indicator of exposure to estrogens or chemicals that mimic the activity of natural hormones. Several other abnormalities were also noted by the researchers from the National Fish Health Research Laboratory, some affecting female bass.

Blazer has looked at why so many male smallmouth bass in area watersheds have immature female egg cells in their testes. Recent research by the USGS points to myriad sources including wastewater treatment plant effluent, agricultural and stormwater runoff. Any or all may contribute to reproductive endocrine disruption, as well as the immunosuppression they found.

Working with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service, two scientific papers were published by the researchers. (Later, Blazer got the American Fisheries Society’s 2010 Publications Award for her article investigating fish mortality.) Based on the results of these studies, no single chemical or source could be identified as causing the intersex abnormalities. Scientists point out that multiple chemicals not solely associated with agriculture or wastewater treatment plant effluents may be responsible.

Maryland Department of Natural Resource (DNR) surveys have documented strong reproduction and abundance of smallmouth bass in recent years. “The Potomac River main stem, Monocacy River and Conococheague Creek remain premier smallmouth bass fishing destinations for anglers,” said John Mullican from Maryland DNR.

White sucker fish also showed a tendency to react to hormones. This surely is a bad portent for the Chesapeake Bay.

Biology background

In addition to being a farmer, Cleon taught biology at Lower Dauphin High School. His son teaches biology at Hershey School. They know biology. Their thoughts are backed up by scientists ranging from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to the National Geographic Society. Their land has been cultivated by the Cassel family since 1903. The Swatara is about a mile from the home farm. Craig and Chris, along with and their wives, Becky and Jody, are the fifth generation to work the farm and are part of the three generations of family that currently work the land near Hershey. Cleon is looking to the future – and the sixth generation is at the rabbit-showing stage in their career.

To date, just 2 percent of the population – farmers, and sometimes golf courses, cemeteries or other green areas – have been asked to bear the onus of the bay’s problems, the Cassels said.

Chris said Blazer’s collection sites are in an area of minimal agricultural runoff. However, he noted there are numerous wastewater plants, institutions like the Milton Hershey Hospital and pharmaceutical plants in the watershed.

Hormones are killing the Chesapeake Bay for fishermen, the father and sons said. “We have regulations for 20 percent cuts in nutrients. We ought to demand 20 percent cuts on estrogen and road salts,” Cleon said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is aware of the issue but has taken no action to date. The Cassels want the government and other researchers to expend more effort researching hormones and road salts as killers of fish. It is not that they deny manure is part of the problem. They freely admit that it is. However, after 30 years of work with farmers, environmental conditions in the bay are barely holding their own despite huge improvements in reducing ag runoff.

A look at manure

Chris noted that the fish gathered for study outside Hershey were netted near the Hershey Medical Center. No mention of the medical center is made in the research, although he said every male bass taken in that area showed female organs.

“We’ve been beating up farmers about manure ruining every watershed,” noted Sheila Miller who, with her husband, Mike, runs Deitchland Farm near Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania. “Even the kids in school think farmers are to blame.”

Cleon agreed. “The Amish are the easiest people to blame. They never go to court. They never fight back. Farmers are second easiest.”

While Miller is adamant that farmers should not be putting manure into streams, she noted the amount of work that has been done – starting with the decades-old practice of contour farming and continuing to today’s BMPs (best management practices).

The Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) agrees that farmers have done well. “Farmers have made good progress in reducing sediment, nutrient and pesticide losses from farm fields through conservation practice adoption throughout the Chesapeake Bay region,” CEAP stated.

Most cropland acres have structural or management practices – or both – in place to control erosion. Nearly half of the cropland acres are protected by one or more structural practices, such as buffers or terraces. Reduced tillage is used in some form on 88 percent of the cropland. Adoption of conservation practices has reduced edge-of-field sediment loss by 55 percent, losses of nitrogen with surface runoff by 42 percent losses of nitrogen in subsurface flows by 31 percent, and losses of phosphorus (sediment attached and soluble) by 41 percent.

Producers have reduced N by over 45 percent of 2025 targets, phosphates by 32 percent and sediments by 30 percent. Even watchdog agencies concede that ag has done a lot. Farmers have accomplished 50 percent of what they were asked to do to get the bay to a level of nutrients and sediments where it can start to regenerate itself.

Even critics agree that it is likely more has been done by farmers than has been counted. This is primarily because projects that are not cost-shared fly under the government’s radar.

Since it is easy to document cost-share projects – state and federal agencies do a good job of that – those projects are well known. However, improvements producers do on their own are harder to track.

The problem is that the success story is not uniform. CEAP said, “Opportunities exist to further reduce sediment and nutrient losses.” But, as Chris said, that is only part of the problem. And the big, low-hanging fruit is in drugs, not manure.

Historic record

The USGS got involved long ago. In the summer and fall months of 1996 and 1997, an unusually high prevalence of skin lesions in fishes from tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay surprised the fishing community and scientists. These skin lesions ranged from small petechial hemorrhages to abrasions to deep ulcers penetrating underlying muscle and visceral organs. A variety of fish species were involved as indicated by results of surveys conducted by several state and federal agencies during this time period.

Cleon Cassel and his sons Chris and Craig all hold master’s degrees and all taught biology. Chris, here with a bass, got his master’s degree studying stream runoff.

Photo by Jody Cassel

In addition, two fish kills involving primarily juvenile Atlantic menhaden occurred in August 1997. The fish kills as well as the variety of fish lesions were attributed to the presence of the toxic dinoflagellate, Pfiesteria piscicida. Because menhaden were the most frequent target of acute fish kills and episodes of fish lesions in the Chesapeake Bay, the penetrating ulcers so common in this species are now viewed by many as “Pfiesteria-related” and thought to be caused by exposure to Pfiesteria toxin.

Even earlier, however, there was reason to doubt that manure or farm fertilizer were the major cause of fish kills. Every farm boy or girl over a certain age remembers being sent down to the pond on the homeplace with a bucket of fertilizer and ordered to toss in some scoops to encourage growth.

The Cassel operation has a couple of farm ponds including one just below the horse barn – a building that used to house 100 head of cattle – that are full of thriving fish. They have received manure, but not estrogen or road salt, since 1948. Other farmers have healthy ponds that have received manure or fertilizer runoff for decades, too.

“Our pond has some of the best fishing in Dauphin County and it is way over-nutrient loaded,” Cleon said.

Cleon noted an old booklet from the folks at Zett’s Fish Hatchery in Drifting, Pennsylvania, that encourages landowners to sink a bale of straw in a pond and add a sack of manure to the mix to encourage smaller aquatic life to feed. “We’d go to jail if we did that today,” he said.

Most farmers are on board with reducing manure and fertilizer runoff. However, manure may be only part of the issue. So-called “nanoparticles” – those man-made bits of material included in hundreds of products ranging from drugs to sunscreen to sporting goods – are what the Cassels and others suspect are doing the bulk of the damage today.

Rebecca Klaper Ph.D., professor at the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, studies nanoparticles. She wants to know what happens when something so small gets into the environment. Scientists still don’t know how these tiny particles interact with the environment and living things, she said. Using environmental genomics, she has studied waterways from Wisconsin across the Great Lakes into Pennsylvania.

To predict the potential impact of nanomaterials on the environment, her group examined properties of nanomaterials that may make them toxic or cause them to impact populations. She uses the aquatic model species Daphnia magna, D. pulex and Oncorhynchus mykiss (rainbow trout) in an effort to make predictions about the impact of current and future nanomaterials and their toxicity.

“Our initial studies have found that nanoparticle toxicity is influenced by the core structure of the nanomaterial as well as how a nanomaterial is introduced into suspension,” Klaper said. For example, titanium dioxide nanomaterials are an order of magnitude less toxic than their fullerene (nC60) counterparts. In addition, smaller particles are more toxic than larger aggregates. “We are continuing this research with other nanomaterials,” she said. A complete investigation will not be a rapid process.

Core particle structure and surface chemistry both act to impact toxicity, immune response and behavior. “Taking a systematic approach to evaluating nanomaterials will provide a basis with which to make predictions about the characteristics of nanomaterials that may affect their interactions with aquatic species,” Klaper said.

Ultimately, she hopes to be able to provide guidance on what makes nanomaterials harmful to the environment and ideas on to how to create environmentally sustainable nanomaterials.

Whatever the cause of the bay’s difficulties today, most observers would agree that anything that impacts the health of the bay should come under review.

Focusing on farmers and manure runoff, to the exclusion of other potentially more-damaging causes, is bad for everyone.

“The finger-pointing at farmers is not going to go away,” Chris said, noting big pharma has too much money in the game to allow that.

Research efforts flow to areas where dollars are available. Nobody in academic research wants to do anything that would cause pharmaceutical companies to withdraw research dollars, he said. However, he sees some hope since wastewater treatment operations know they have “a secret problem” and are working on ways to treat effluent.

“Nobody wants to say, ‘We have met the enemy and they are us,'” Cleon said. “But it is interesting that all the researchers’ findings (of sex-distorted fish) are close to populated areas, close to research facilities, close to pharmaceutical plants.”