The fish in the coal mine

Truly disturbing news in today’s VTDigger feed. (Oh, Digger, why must you spoil my Monday mornings?…)

A significant majority of Missisquoi River’s male smallmouth bass bear eggs, a characteristic known as “intersex.”

… A report published this fall, the most comprehensive of its kind, found 60 percent to 75 percent of male smallmouth bass in the Missisquoi River carry eggs.


Sixty to 75 percent???

That’s overwhelming evidence of an ecosystem ravaged by outside forces.

Okay, that’s the scientifically disturbing fact of the day. Now for the politically disturbing fact.

The scientists believe the cause of this phenomenon is agricultural runoff — the same thing that’s triggering Lake Champlain’s toxic algae blooms. However, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture is resisting the idea that farms are to blame.

“The data in the study are in no way indicative of a need for regulatory change on herbicide applications in Vermont,” said Cary Giguere, Agrichemical Program Manager at the Agency of Agriculture. “We have no idea of the [intersex-causing pollutant] source. In some ways, the study shows proper management and protection.”

That strikes me as an outrageous denial of the obvious. But, to be fair, there are very high incidences of intersex fish throughout the Northeast, including in some areas with little or no agriculture.

Still, the Missisquoi basin does have a lot of agriculture, and runoff is a proven cause of blue-green algae blooms. The scientists aren’t just blowing smoke, either; there are known agricultural causes of the intersex phenomenon. And it’s not like there’s a huge amount of industry or development in the Missisquoi basin. If you’re looking for causes, agriculture is where you’d have to look first.

I realize that a big part of the Ag Agency’s mission is to foster agriculture in Vermont. But it should not be a defender of harmful agricultural practices. It ought to carry out its mission within a broader framework of public policy that encourages a healthy, sustainable Vermont. The Agency has consistently dragged its feet on the Lake Champlain issue; I hope to hell it’s not going to do the same  when it comes to our plague of Franken-fish.

Note: Credit to James Ehlers of Lake Champlain International for the “coal mine” and “Franken-fish” analogies.

3 thoughts on “The fish in the coal mine

  1. Terry

    John, very interesting topic. I’ve been seeing articles over the past decade about research linking abundant estrogen flushing into the water systems from birth control pills and hormone replacement supplements to sexual changes in male fish. I don’t think agriculture is to blame for this. We also should be concerned about the high level of pharmaceuticals being flushed into sewer/ water systems daily.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      I doubt that farming is the only factor. Given that this is an epidemic across the Northeast, there are probably multiple causes. But in the case of the Missisquoi, there’s a lot of farming in the river basin and not so much human population. And there are known agricultural triggers for the phenomenon. I believe we have to look at farming, and probably farming first, if we want to tackle the problem. And I hate to see the Ag Agency issuing a kneejerk statement absolving agriculture.

      1. James Ehlers

        The science is pretty solid. Ag pesticides and CAFO manure (laden with lactating cow hormones) are much more likely at the root given the low human population in this region. The previous poster is correct in noting the other causes; these, however, are associated with human populations in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.

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