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John McCoy: Elkhorn fish kill shows southern streams' vulnerability

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The images, posted recently on Facebook and other social media, were upsetting.

They showed dead trout, floating belly-up in the waters of Elkhorn Creek. Witnesses to the fish kill said they found more than two dozen rainbows and browns between Northfork and Kimball.

There were no overt signs that the fish had been mishandled and released by careless anglers. The most immediate impression was that they had been poisoned.

Division of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Protection investigators were called in to assess the kill and to try to determine how and why it happened.

Unless they’re clairvoyant, chances are they’ll never find out.

Mark Scott, the DNR’s assistant chief in charge of fisheries, knows that stretch of water as well as anyone. During his tenure as the agency’s District 4 biologist, he surveyed Elkhorn Creek many times.

Scott offered a couple of observations: One, the kill didn’t appear to be very large.

“Finding only 27 in that stretch tells me it was a partial kill,” he said. “The most likely scenario is that someone flushed something toxic [into the stream] which killed trout in a small area, then high waters spread them downstream.”

He said it’s that investigators will ever know which substance was involved.

“Unless they can get some idea of what killed the fish, testing is futile. It’s not as simple as testing the dead [trout], because this was an acute situation. Nothing had time to accumulate in the fishes’ systems.”

That stretch of Elkhorn is loaded with wild rainbows and browns. Losing 27 fish is not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things; if no further kills occur, the local trout population will rebound as soon as the next generation of fish is spawned.

It could have been worse. Coal mines are still active in the area, and a sizable discharge of contaminated water could have killed many more trout. Same goes for a tank-car derailment on the nearby Norfolk Southern Railway, or a tanker-truck accident on nearby U.S. 52.

Like many wild-trout streams in West Virginia’s coalfield counties, Elkhorn Creek is anything but pristine. Some local residents still dump household trash into it. Sewer pipes run straight from people’s toilets to the stream’s edge. Its trout population thrives in spite of the blight.

There needs to come a time when state officials recognize the tourism potential in Elkhorn and other southern West Virginia streams, and take measures to clean them up and keep them that way.

It won’t be easy; in fact, the recent fish kill shows just how difficult it can be.

Imagine, at some future date, an Elkhorn Creek served by reliable community trash-disposal services and watershed-wide sewage-treatment facilities. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Then imagine someone taking a 5-gallon bucket filled with meth-making chemicals and emptying its contents into the creek. Boom. Dead trout; probably not many, but still…

Is that what happened last week on Elkhorn? Who knows? The bottom line is that such incidents have the potential to occur at any time, at least until the people of those communities decide to become self-policing by pointing out the irresponsible actors in their midst.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1231, or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.

Funerals for Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Adkins, Ralph - 3 p.m., Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery, Dunbar.

Dunn, Charles - 1 p.m., streaming live, see obituary.

Hughes, Douglas - 6 p.m., Allen Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Jones, Barbara - 11 a.m., Ellyson Mortuary Inc., Glenville.

Kirk, John - 11 a.m., Holstein Cemetery, Dartmont.

Sims, Virginia - 3 p.m., Home of Linda & Dave, 4772 McLane Pike, Red House Ridge, Red House.

Walker, Pamela - 2 p.m., Asbury United Methodist Church Cemetery, Asbury.