Reflections: The AFS Water Quality Section

    By Robert H. Gray and John W. Meldrim

Robert H. Gray, Water Quality Section president from 1992 to 1993 and John W. Meldrim, secretary-treasurer of the Section, was the Section’s only secretary-treasurer until 2000. He was presented with the WQS Distinguished Service Award (the only one ever granted) at the 1993 AFS Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon.

Christine Moffitt, president AFS, declared 2000 a year of reflections. Thus, it is fitting to look at the history of one of the older Sections in the Society. Water quality has long been an important concern for fisheries scientists, and AFS had a Standing Committee on the topic for many years prior to formation of the Water Quality Section (WQS). However, by the 1960s, water quality conditions in the United States had deteriorated to such an extent that many fisheries biologists were consumed with studying, managing, or abating water quality problems. The Water Quality Act, the first federal legislation requiring states to set water quality standards, became law in the mid-1960s. Like most things in our society, especially those dealing with our environment, it takes a crisis to get any committed action for improvement. Thus, although legislation had been enacted to address water pollution, serious commitment in the regulatory arena did not begin until the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire on 22 June 1969. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was introduced shortly thereafter in July 1969 and took effect in January 1970. In 1972, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments, also known as PL92-500, were enacted. With this legislation, orientation shifted from human health to concern for aquatic life. The objective was to restore and maintain chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our nation’s waters, including the improvement of water quality for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife.

…by the 1960s, water quality conditions in the United States had deteriorated to such an extent that many fisheries biologists were consumed with studying, managing, or abating water quality problems.

By the mid-1970s Congress was on a roll, and the passing of environmental legislation took on an exponential function. The deluge of legislation soon became quite complex, involving vast numbers of people, and resulting in extensive activity by fisheries biologists in the area of water quality. As a result, AFS President Cam Stevenson and Executive Director Carl R. Sullivan agreed with the chair of the Standing Water Quality Committee, Howard Johnson, that AFS should have a Section to address water quality issues, problems, and concerns. In 1976, Johnson arranged an organizational meeting at the annual AFS meeting in Dearborn, Michigan, and the WQS was chartered in 1977 as the fourth Section within the Parent Society. The Clean Water Act, enacted shortly thereafter, incorporated the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 and changed legislative focus from general water quality to criteria for pollutants toxic to aquatic life. The regulatory, technical, and social climate at the time reflected the objectives of the Section.

By 1978, the AFS WQS was beginning to gain momentum. In the years immediately following formation of the Section, water quality was a “hot topic.” Section membership grew rapidly, reaching a high of 678 members in 1981, causing AFS Executive Director Carl Sullivan to refer to the WQS as a “sleeping giant.” However, as budget dollars declined and interests diversified, membership in the WQS began to decline. Many AFS and WQS members were also members of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), which had a greater diversity of professional scientists than AFS. SETAC tended to attract those WQS members involved in acute and chronic aquatic toxicity testing. Waning interest in water quality by fisheries managers in the mid-1980s may also have contributed to the decline in WQS membership.

Throughout the rise and decline in membership, the WQS has focused on communicating various aspects of water quality issues among fisheries scientists. The Section has sponsored or chaired more than 45 symposia and contributed paper sessions at annual AFS meetings over the past 23 years. Some of these symposia have been published (e.g., Coutant 1985; Mehrle et al. 1985; Becker and Neitzel 1992). Perhaps the most widely used Society WQS publication was the Section’s review of the EPA Red Book, published in 1979.

The Section has published a newsletter since 1978. The newsletter has had five editors: Carl Schreck, 1978–1980; Paul Merhle, 1980–1986; Duane Neitzel, 1986–1995; Pete Saunders, 1995–1998; and Jerry Schulte, 1998–present. The newsletter has had two mastheads, the first reflecting the aquatic toxicology emphasis of the 1980s, the second a more all-inclusive theme. The current name of the newsletter, Water Quality Matters, was picked through a contest involving the membership. At one time, newsletter readers were entertained and challenged with provocative cartoons by Seedy (a.k.a. Dale Becker) Most of these are as current now as when originally published in 1990.

Throughout its history the Section has changed as new but related issues dealing with water quality have arisen. In 1982, a group of approximately 200 individuals led by Lynn Starnes sought to form a new Section on acid mine drainage. However, after extensive discussions with WQS leadership, this group joined WQS, and the Section broadened its perspective. More recently, another group led by Paola Ferreri interested in forming a new Section on watershed issues decided to merge with the WQS. Again, the Section broadened its perspective to incorporate this emerging concern. Periodically, like in the Parent Society, WQS members have raised the issue of changing the Section’s name. The discussions that followed usually coincided with emerging water quality issues. The most frequently discussed change focused on inclusion of the concept of fish habitat or habitat quality in the name. However, after many stimulating and thoughtful debates, the original name has endured for 23 years.   Historically, the WQS has served as a resource to AFS executive directors. Requests for review of issues and questions concerning water quality concerns for AFS policy statements have been directed to the Section for resolution. Several WQS presidents (Table 1, list of WQS presidents) have gone on to other leadership positions within the Society, including election to the AFS presidency. The Section continues to be an information source for the AFS Governing Board and membership by publishing newsletters; sponsoring, organizing, and moderating symposia; chairing contributed paper sessions at annual meetings; reviewing and commenting on key water quality documents; and alerting fisheries professionals to water quality issues affecting the health of aquatic resources. The Section remains responsive to emerging issues as the role of water quality as fisheries science changes. Over its history, the stated objectives of the WQS have been revised several times. At the time of this writing, its objectives are to:

  •  Maintain an association of persons involved in the protection of watersheds, water quality, and aquatic habitat and the abatement of water pollution and habitat and watershed deterioration;
  • Encourage improved professional and technical standards in the investigation, abatement, and regulation of water pollution, aquatic habitat, and watershed problems; and
  • Objectively focus attention on watershed, aquatic habitat, and water quality concerns, and improve methods for solving relevant issues by conducting workshops and projects, collecting and assembling information for publication, and distributing results to Society members and the public.


AFS (American Fisheries Society). 1979. Section’s review of EPA Redbook. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, MD. Becker, C. D., and D. A. Neitzel, eds. 1992. Water quality in North American river systems. Papers from a symposium held in conjunction with the 116th American Fisheries Society Annual (1987) Meeting, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Battelle Press, Columbus, OH. Coutant, C. C., ed. 1985. Striped bass: environmental risks in fresh and salt water. Papers from a symposium held in conjunction with the 112th American Fisheries Society Annual (1982) Meeting, Hilton Head, South Carolina. Trans. Am. Fish. Soc. 114:1–151.

Mehrle, P. M., R. H. Gray, and R. L. Kendall, eds. 1985. Toxic substances in the aquatic environment: an international aspect. Papers from an international symposium held in conjunction with the 112th American Fisheries Society Annual (1982) Meeting, Hilton Head, South Carolina. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, MD