River restocking continues following massive fish kill

PEARL RIVER — After a three-hour journey in a truck-mounted fish tank, thousands of young bluegills were released into the West Pearl River in St. Tammany Parish, La., last week.

In small batches, state wildlife officials released 200,000 bluegills — raised at a state hatchery in Alexandria, La., — into the river near Interstate 59 as part of a restoration effort. Last year, an industrial spill dumped a byproduct known as “black liquor” into the river, depleting oxygen and killing more than a half-million fish and mussels.

Tim Ruth, a state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist, tells The Times-Picayune that in the first year of the three-year restoration plan the department released 120,000 red ear, 66,000 largemouth bass. 27,000 channel catfish and 76,000 bluegills, not including this past week’s shipment.

Wildlife and fisheries authorities in November 2011 reached a settlement with paper-maker Temple-Inland that granted the state a total of $760,000, including $408,000 for the value of the kill, $44,000 in accident response, $88,000 for a three-year recovery and monitoring program and $220,000 for restocking fish.

Jennifer Blanchard, director of the Honey Island Conservation Program, founded in the wake of the fish kill, said fishers in the area continue to report poor catches.

“It’s nothing like it used to be,” Blanchard said. “People aren’t catching like they used to.”

Blanchard said her group is waiting to learn what penalties will be imposed by the state Department of Environmental Quality in a settlement with Temple-Inland, which was acquired by International Paper Co. earlier this year.

A DEQ spokeswoman said the agency is in dispute-resolution talks with the company.

Ruth noted that the Pearl River is an important home to many fish and mussels, including the state and federally protected Gulf sturgeon. He said his office is committed to following through on the river’s recovery.

“It has a tremendous amount of species diversity,” Ruth said.

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