They are game fish, and their cross-land migration to the Delaware River was arranged, with the blessing of local officials, by the Pennsylvania Fish
This was the third time in four years that the commission had sent a tankload of fish to Delaware County to help a river the commission says is on the rebound. The restocking comes at a time when local and state officials say interest in county waterfront activities is strong and increasing as more people turn to the Delaware River for such sports as fishing and boating.
Last week, the spotlight was on fishing.
Under overcast skies, as a cool wind blew over the riverfront, a cadre of elected officials and fishing enthusiasts gathered Monday for a ceremonial fish stocking at Chester's Commodore Barry Bridge Recreation Area, a public boat-launching and fishing site in the shadow of the bridge.
From an aquariumlike tank truck painted with the words "Fishing is Fun," the muskies were scooped with a net and dumped into pails. One by one, the buckets were emptied into the river. In less than a half-hour, 1,000 6-month- old muskies were swimming the depths of the Delaware.
Afterward, with far less fanfare, 2,500 fish were set loose at three Tinicum sites, including the Tinicum National Environmental Center and two lagoons off Interstate 95.
Anglers who watched the stocking in Chester said they hoped the muskies would cross their paths again. The fish, now eight to 10 inches long, must be 30 inches to keep.
"I think it'll be a few years yet," said Charles Garnett, a Chester resident and avid angler, "but I think we'll catch up with them."
"If it's not them, it'll be others," said Reginald Kennedy, 54, who fishes at the Chester pier on weekends.
Such confidence in the catch has not always been the case.
Until about five years ago, the river was so polluted by industrial waste and untreated sewage that large fish kills were frequent. Environmental regulations on industry, sewage treatment requirements and public attention on dumping problems have slowly reversed that.
Today, the river has 42 species of fish. Lee Tilton, a district waterways conservation officer for the fish commission, says the water is cleaner than it has been in more than 50 years.
Even striped bass, an anglers' favorite, is coming back, Tilton said. Those must be 33 inches to be kept, and many in the river are now as long as 15 to 20 inches, he said.
"The fishing from Trenton Falls to Delaware County is doing nothing but improving," Tilton said.
Not all the river's problems are over, however. A report released by the fish commission and state Department of Environmental Resources (DER) in 1986 revealed that high levels of PCBs, a carcinogen, and the pesticide chlordane, a probable carcinogen, had been found in the two species of fish tested in the Delaware County river area, from Little Tinicum Island to Chester.
The test showed those contaminants were present in channel catfish and American eels at levels near or exceeding standards set by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Elevated levels of the banned pesticide DDT, also were found in the fish.
Although no signs have been posted, the DER and the fish commission issued an advisory in 1986 recommending that people avoid eating catfish and eels
from the river or eat them only in small quantities. Blue crabs tested were found to have little or no contaminants.
Donald Knorr, an aquatic biologist with the DER, said no cause for the contamination has been determined. There are many potential sources in such highly industrialized areas as the Philadelphia region, he said.
The section of the waterfront where testing was conducted includes a string of major industries as well as the ABM-Wade dump site, which is included in the Superfund cleanup program for the nation's worst hazardous-waste sites. The dump, where cleanup was recently completed, is within a few hundred feet of Chester's fishing pier.
The fish commission says, however, that it forsees no problem concerning tainted muskies.
First, few people will be able to catch the muskies. They were stocked as a challenge for serious anglers, and those who do catch the muskies probably will not reel in more than a couple, said Michael Kaufmann, the commission's southeastern Pennsylvania area fisheries manager.
Because the chances of hooking a muskie so slim, there is little likelihood that anyone will eat a significant quantity of that fish, he said. Muskies usually become trophies, not dinner, Kaufmann said.
The muskies' potential for becoming contaminated is less than that of the catfish and eels previously tested, he said, because muskies do not feed at the bottom of the river.
"My assumption is that they will pick up some contaminants, but we don't know if the levels would exceed (FDA) levels," Kaufmann said. "But we're not expecting large numbers of those fish to be consumed and eaten. We're encouraging people to catch these fish as a trophy fish."
Alonzo Sadler says last week's muskie stocking is a sign of better times. He says there are other indications.
A veteran Chester angler, Sadler arrives at the public pier before 7 o'clock every morning to reel in his daily catch, usually from five to nine fish by early afternoon.
Some days he gets fewer fish, Sadler said, but in the past, the catch was far smaller - and those caught even tasted worse than they do now. Sadler, 67, who is retired from the Chester Water Authority, said he eats the fish infrequently. He usually gives them away.
Nonetheless, he said, "Now they taste like any other fish. At one time they tasted oily."
Sadler and others said the most common catch was catfish, but from the Chester waterfront, anglers have pulled in blue gill, shad, rock bass, carp, perch and crabs. The fishing is best at high tide.
"One man comes down here and gets a bushel of crabs by noon every day," said Mallie Willis, a Chester police officer and fisherman.
Other fishing spots are improving. According to fish commission officials, Delaware County anglers are pulling in fish at such favorite spots as the Springton Reservoir, in Upper Providence, Marple and Newtown; Ridley Creek, through Middletown, Edgmont and Ridley Creek State Park; Chester Creek, in Middletown and Aston; Darby Creek, from Darby to Radnor; the Tinicum National Environmental Center; and Ithan Run in Radnor.
But the Delaware River is among the county's sites with the greatest draw. In addition to the Chester recreation facility, anglers drop their lines at many points along the river, including the pier at Marcus Hook's Market Square Memorial Park.
The fish commission first stocked the river in Chester in October 1984, when Chester's public recreation facility opened and the commission sent more than 6,000 tiger muskies. A year later, another truckload of 6,000 was hauled in.
Within a year and a half, some of the muskies had grown to 30 inches - the
size for keeping, Tilton said.
The commission plans to continue stocking fish in the river in Delaware County, and the next delivery is set for 1989. All told, the commission has stocked about 65,000 muskies in the river, from Trenton to Marcus Hook, since 1981.
The fish stocked are a hybrid of a Northern Pike and a Pennsylvania Muskie. The commission takes eggs from fish in Lake Pymatuning, in northwestern Pennsylvania at the Ohio border, and hatches and raises the hybrids at its hatchery in Huntsdale, just west of Carlisle.
"We wanted a fish that was a good, hearty fish that could provide for itself, and one that wouldn't go out of that area for spawning," Tilton said. ''This fish doesn't reproduce. They have to be stocked every couple of years, but this way the people who are paying for them get the benefit of catching them."
The cost of fish stocking is covered by fishing licenses, which are $12 a year and required for anglers 16 years old and up.
"Seventy-five years ago, there was a lot of recreational boating and a lot of fishing, and we lost it all with pollution, and now the fish commission is working with the local folks to stock the river and bring it back," said state Sen. Clarence D. Bell (R., Del.), who represents Chester.
Though not a fisherman himself, Bell was one of many participants at last week's ceremony who exhibited quintessential exuberance about the size of the catch.
As Tilton, from the fish commission, rattled off a list of fish in the river, Bell repeatedly asked, "And what's biggest they've caught? How big are they catching them?"
Asked about the largest recent catch in Chester, anglers Willis, Garnett and James "Timmy" Harper showed similar zeal. Garnett finally ended the discussion with amusement, saying, "The last one of us who talks will have caught the biggest fish."
It sounded convincing to Walter Kornafel.
A retired utility company worker who lives in Chester but usually fishes in the Delaware Bay or in lakes and creeks near the Pocono Mountains, Kornafel, 69, said he was becoming persuaded to try his own back yard.
"I've never fished here, but from what I'm hearing it's improving," Kornafel said. "I just might come down here some day. It looks pretty good right now.
All that bodes well for Chester, officials and anglers said.
The city has been hoping its public recreation facility - a four-acre open area with a 76-space parking lot, two free public boat launching ramps and a fishing pier - would become well-used by waterfront. Plans are under way to add more parking areas and two more launching ramps by September 1988.
"The waterfront is a vital resource for the city that we should use as much as we can," said state Rep. Robert C. Wright (R-Chester).
Tilton, from the fish commission, said he saw new signs of that all the time, as he drives the county waterfront every day.
"During the day, a lot of retired people or night-shift people are out there," he said. "On the weekends or in the evening you have more working people . . . We're having more family people going out there on Saturday and Sunday afternoon and packing a picnic and fishing. In the last three years, the number of people has increased every year."
SOME FISH ARE SHOWING CONTAMINATION
For the purposes of sport fishing, there is little danger in hooking a catfish or an eel from the Delaware River. For tonight's dinner, however, the risk is far less clear.
State tests done on those fish taken from the river in the stretch from Tinicum to Chester show edible tissues contain high levels of PCBs, a carcinogen, chlordane, a probable carcinogen and DDT, a banned pesticide.
The 1986 finding has not been widely publicized. No signs are posted along the river. Since other fish have not been tested, state officials are not sure how widespread the contamination is.
Still, the state agencies involved in the study, the Department of Environmental Resources and the Pennsylvania Fish Commission, have discouraged anglers from eating large quantities of river fish, especially those that feed at the bottom. The agencies issued one advisory, in 1986, to publicize their findings.
"If you're making a steady diet of fish from the Delaware, I wouldn't do it," said Michael Kaufmann, the fish commission's southeastern Pennsylvania area fisheries manager.
PCBs and chlordane were found in the fish near or exceeding the safe standards set by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Fish with levels exceeding those standards cannot be sold.
The DDT level was high but did not reach the FDA standard.
Kaufmann and other state officials said that occasionally eating the fish probably would not be dangerous.
Blue crabs that were tested had little or no contaminants.
Other bottom-dwelling fish include suckers, eels and carp.
The FDA standard for chlordane is 0.3 parts per million in edible flesh. In Delaware County, channel catfish showed 1.6 parts per million. American eels tested at 1.1 parts per million.
The standard for PCBs is 2 parts per million, and the catfish tested at 1.9 while the eels showed 1.1 parts per million.
The fish tested for the study were collected in 1985 in river waters from Little Tinicum Island to the Commodore Barry Bridge in Chester.
Fish in the river's Delaware County portion tested higher than those in two other sections of the river where the study was done, near Yardley and near Stroudsburg.
Fatty, oily fish are generally more susceptible than game fish to carrying the contaminants, state officials said.