Fish Tales

Rayburn's bass diminish as debates continue over pollution discharges

Fishermen on Sam Rayburn Reservoir have had a discouraging year. One of the premier largemouth bass lakes in the country, Rayburn once would typically disgorge ten- or 12-pound bass by the dozen in its many tournaments held annually.

But the East Texas lake's productivity has dipped in recent years, and 2000 is the worst in recent memory: At a December 3 tournament, the winner had a meager total of 17.25 pounds for four fish; more than 120 participants failed to catch a single keeper. Other results have been equally poor. "It sucks," says Ed Parten, president of Texas Black Bass Unlimited.

A recently completed annual sampling of Rayburn fish by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department paralleled the anglers' experience. The agency found only half as many fish this year as last, down 73 percent from 1998. Though the total catch offers only a general sense of conditions and must be further analyzed by size and other variables, the news isn't good. Even those who once denied the lake had problems now have come around, although fingers of blame point in several directions.

Parten is among a coalition of fishermen, area residents and environmentalists who believe the decline of the bass can be traced directly to the giant paper mill in Lufkin that dumps more than 15 million gallons of wastewater daily into the lake. The effluent includes more than a million pounds of pollutants annually, many of which are toxic or oxygen-depleting. Now owned by Canadian newsprint giant Abitibi-Consolidated, the mill has been embroiled in a controversy that has divided the community and spread throughout the state (see "Reeling," by Bob Burtman, April 6).

At the center of the debate is a proposal by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission to downgrade the water quality standards in the portion of the reservoir nearest the mill's feeder tributary. The downgrade, which would allow Abitibi to discharge certain pollutants into Rayburn at rates far greater than under the current standard, was approved in July as part of a statewide TNRCC review. Donohue Industries, the mill's former owner, lobbied hard for the change -- if approval was not forthcoming, Donohue officials warned, the mill would have to close.

Besides, Donohue argued, the paper mill was not responsible for the lake's myriad problems, which were more likely due to climate and other factors. And the water standards were not actually being lowered, but merely were being set at the level they should have been all along. To back this thesis, Donohue hired consulting firms that submitted a pair of studies to the agency. "We've adopted changes which are based on what good science tells us," TNRCC Chairman Robert Huston announced.

Others disagree. The EPA already has rejected one of the standards changes, which would allow Abitibi to discharge aluminum into the lake at roughly eight times the current permitted level (though the company at this time is operating under a variance that sets no limit on aluminum). High concentrations of aluminum have been identified by the TNRCC as a problem in Rayburn.

The EPA was supposed to have decided on the other standards change by now, but gave itself an extension. A ruling may not come until sometime in the new year, which means politics may play a role: Both of the U.S. senators from Texas as well as key state legislators backed the paper mill, and a Bush administration is likely to be sympathetic to the economic argument.

But opponents of the changes have an economic argument of their own: The city of Jasper, which relies heavily on revenue from recreational fishing, may well dry up if the lake continues to decline as a prime bass destination.

Ann Thomasson-Wilson, who owns Ann's Tackle Shop, says the lousy fishing and resultant bad publicity have reduced customers to a relative trickle. "Our business is off 30 to 35 percent this year," she says, "and it's definitely because of the tournaments going elsewhere."

"The lake is our No. 1 asset," Thomasson-Wilson says. "If they keep pounding the lake like they're doing, we won't have much to offer."

 
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