Bald Eagle

Biologist: ‘Spawning stress’ causes fish die-off at Sayers

Dead fish have been washing up on shore at the beach area of Bald Eagle State Park, June 2, 2014.
Dead fish have been washing up on shore at the beach area of Bald Eagle State Park, June 2, 2014. CDT photo

Warm water draws early summer swimmers to Foster Joseph Sayers Lake, but it hasn’t been good for fish.

A biologist with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission said fish, namely black crappies, have been dying in large numbers along the lake’s shores in recent days.

Dave Miko, chief of the commission’s division of fisheries management, blamed “spawning stress” for the die-off — which he says is now a yearly ritual at the lake near Howard.

“We’ve been seeing this annually at Sayers for at least 10 years, where we have a significant die-off of crappies,” Miko said. “This year seems to be bigger than others. But it’s been happening, and it’s staying in people’s minds.”

Miko said there is no pollutant at work, and there is no threat to people — other than the sight of so many dead fish near an area where children are splashing and playing.

Bald Eagle State Park manager Michael Winters said the water is tested at the swimming area twice each week during the months when the beach is open.

“It alarms people every year when this happens, and it happens every year at about this time,” Winters said. “People see it and think there must be something wrong with the water. But that’s not the case.”

Miko estimated the number of fish washing up along the shores as “more than dozens, perhaps in the neighborhood of hundreds.”

He said the fish move into shallow water to spawn and don’t seek relief in deeper, cooler water when they become stressed.

“These fish are coming out of a particularly tough winter,” he said. “They’re nest-building, nest protecting. That takes a toll on these fish.”

He said black crappies are the primary species affected, with a few bass and bluegills likely suffering the same fate.

“Instead of getting to cooler water and refreshing themselves, they’re focused on building nests and spawning,” Miko said.

Eric Levis, press secretary with the Fish and Boat Commission, said his office receives reports of similar fish die-off incidents at various lakes each year.

“It’s a natural thing that happens,” Levis said. “We see it up on Lake Erie, where fish will die of stress that is spawning-related.”

But why fish go belly-up in large numbers every year at Sayers Lake is, at least so far, a mystery.

“Why Sayers has this happen every year, we’re not really sure,” Miko said. “We have done some pathology research work in the past and haven’t been able to isolate anything specific that might be causing this.”