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Aquarium to showcase health of Kanawha and Elk

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A diverse assortment of fish from the vicinity of the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha rivers in downtown Charleston was captured by electro-fishing biologists Monday to fill a mobile aquarium now on display at Haddad Riverfront Park.

Personnel from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) stunned the fish with a carefully moderated electric current sent into the water from cables dangling from a pair of bow-mounted booms. The stunned fish were then netted, placed in an onboard tank, and transported to the aquarium.

"A lot of people have the assumption that the Kanawha River is polluted and doesn't support many fish," said DEP biologist John Wirtz. "With the passage of the Clean Water Act and the end of untreated sewage being dumped in the river, that's no longer the case. We want people in this area to know how much cleaner and full of life the river is, compared to how it used to be."

The Kanawha deserved a reputation as a severely polluted, virtually lifeless, river in the 1950s and 60s.

"Back then, oxygen levels were near zero during parts of the summer, and every summer fish died," Wirtz said.

Passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 dramatically reduced the volume of industrial waste being discharged into the river, as did the development of sewage treatment plants at smaller communities throughout the watershed.

A DEP electro-shocking boat piloted by Jason Morgan veered into the mouth of the Elk River Monday afternoon to avoid choppy water on the Kanawha caused by brisk winds, and immediately began producing fish. Wirtz and ORSANCO biologist Jeff Thomas netted the stunned fish and placed them in the boat's holding tank.

A foot-long, carp-like buffalo was the first fish to float the surface, followed by a series of other species, including sauger, redhorse suckers, long-ear sunfish, green sunfish, flathead and channel catfish, smallmouth bass, gizzard shad and bluegill.

More than 30 species of fish can now be found in the Kanawha. By displaying them in ORSANCO's 2,200-gallon "Life Below the Waterline" aquarium, "people have a tangible way to see how well the river's doing," Thomas said. "And when people can appreciate what they have in their own backyard, the more willing they are to protect it."

ORSANCO, an eight-state commission formed to control and abate water pollution in the Ohio River watershed, is holding a series of technical meetings at the Charleston Marriott today and Wednesday, followed by a commission meeting Thursday.

The "Below the Waterline" exhibit will remain on display at Haddad Riverfront Park through Wednesday night.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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