Researchers at Oregon State University have done everybody a huge favor by finding the source of fish deformities in the Willamette River. Their conclusion -- that the abnormalities in some juvenile fish are caused by two kinds of parasites, not by pollutants such as pesticides -- is a milestone. It keeps efforts to clean up the river from going off in a wrong and useless direction.
Let us remember who is responsible for the effort to get to the bottom of this question, which had cropped up in one Willamette River study after another for years.
The driving force was Mae Yih, the state senator from Albany who drove her critics mad by her persistence, and who never had trouble getting re-elected because voters knew that once Mae said something, she would stick with it no matter what. She would be in the Senate still, except that, in her 70s, she chose to retire rather than run one more time in 2002.
It was Mae Yih who got the Legislature to pass a bill funding the study of fish deformities in 2001. And when Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed the bill, it was she who worked to get the study funded anyway, through funds administered by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.
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In 1995, researchers for the state were nearing the end of a four-year study of the health of the Willamette River. The problem with deformed fish had come up early in the study, when the fish involved were still called squawfish. (Now they are northern pike minnows.) The problem was concentrated in the Newberg Pool, but deformed fish also had been found upriver near Albany.
There were dark suspicions that some industrial chemical or other pollutant was the cause. Portland television ran programs showing horrible-looking fish being pulled from the water, and the implication was that someone was to blame.
In 1998 and '99, a study sponsored by the Department of Environmental Quality noted that the percentage of deformed fish at some river locations including Albany had declined, but still there was the nagging concentration in the Newberg Pool.
Now, near the conclusion of what should be called the Yih Study, principal researchers Larry Curtis, Michael Kent and Douglas Markle, all at OSU, have identified the culprits: Two kinds of parasites, one tiny and wormlike, the other a microscopic kind of jellyfish, afflict some of the chisel mouth chubs and northern pike minnows in the river. The remaining riddle is why the parasites are particularly heavy in the slack water near Newberg. That is the subject for further work.
In 1997, the Democrat-Herald said editorially: "It's been years since apparently abnormal deformities were found in juvenile squawfish in the Newberg Pool and elsewhere in the river, and we still do not know the cause. We have to know, and if it's the result of human activity we ought to fix it now, not in 10 years."
Now we know, and we have reason to be grateful to the scientists at Oregon State, and to Senator Yih who made sure the study was launched.