Return of the chub builds on Mahoning River’s potential


There’s more than meets the eye these days when a robust bigeye chub snags itself onto the hook of the growing corps of recreational fishermen along the Mahoning River.

Not only does reeling in that freshwater carp bring ear-to-ear grins for the proud fisherman or woman, the species’ return also represents another tangible sign of progress toward cleanup of the 113-mile body of water that long has defined the Youngstown-Warren metro area.

Throughout the Mahoning Valley, the chub’s return also serves as a rallying point to pump more momentum into ongoing projects to maximize the river’s use, appeal and luster.

Last week, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency documented the return of the chub, that big-eyed freshwater fish that had been extinct from the waterway for more than a century. The EPA attributed its rebound to the ongoing de-pollution work along the Mahoning River Watershed.

That encouraging development comes atop other signs of slow but measureable improvements. They include last year’s ruling from the Ohio EPA that removed all Mahoning River fish from its “Do Not Eat” list, though the agency still encourages moderation in consuming fish caught from its waters.

Anecdotally, Vindicator fishing columnist Jack Wollitz recounted just last month how he and a friend hooked more than 40 smallmouth bass, several in the 16-inch range, along with other assorted fish from the Mahoning’s increasingly clear waters.

Optimism also rises from Lowellville’s recent $2.38 million EPA grant to remove a dam from the Mahoning River within the village. Other local governments, such as Struthers, are wisely working on grant proposals to fund similar dam-removal projects.

Those projects are particularly critical to enhancing the long-term viability of the river. As Stephanie Dyer of the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, points out, “Rivers, by nature, are meant to be free flowing, [without] obstructions such as dams.” She added that a free-flowing river carries lighter sediments, such as silt or sand, downstream while heavier materials, such as rocks, sink to the bottom. As communities and agencies work to remove additional barriers from the river, more native fish species are bound to return.

So, too, are human outdoors lovers. Nowhere is that recreational river renaissance more evident than in Warren, where two dam-removal projects have been completed in recent years with a resulting surge in fishing, canoeing, kayaking, bird watching and other enjoyable nature activities.

CHALLENGES LOOM

But much more work remains undone, including the removal of nine more low-lying dams along the Mahoning’s circuitous path. No one can delude themselves into thinking that task will be easy or cheap. Several years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated cost of a comprehensive cleanup of the river in the ballpark of a whopping $150 million.

That high expense of cleanup should not be surprising. It matches the scope of abuse the river took during its heyday as a dumping ground for millions of pounds of pollutants from the Valley’s nine gritty steel mills along its banks.

But the enormity of the mission should not serve as a deterrent to additional cleanup. The Eastgate Council, for one, is to be commended for its leadership in working with individual communities and other state and federal agencies toward the common mission of river enhancement. One promising proposal it is dealing with now would have reservists from the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna use their equipment and manpower to assist in dam removal, dredging and transportation of sediment and waste to landfills.

More of the same outside-the-box creativity and community support will be needed to maximize and expedite the river’s revival. For their part, Valley residents can enlist in that mission via the Friends of the Mahoning River. That organization engages in volunteer cleanup activities and promotion of the river’s potential. It invites new members at its website friendsofmahoningriver.org

Jay Williams, former Youngstown mayor and now an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Commerce, once called the river the “most grossly underused” physical asset in the Mahoning Valley. With ongoing cooperation, hard work and support, we remain confident that the Mahoning will one day rise to unleash its full economic, recreational and environmental potential.

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