Barely a decade ago, some scientists began to think the unthinkable: American shad, which once had reigned as the Bay’s most valuable species, should be listed as an endangered species.

In 1980, only 139 shad were counted at Conowingo Dam, on the Susquehanna River, once home to the largest spawning grounds on the entire East Coast.

In 1992, biologists looking for spawning shad in the lower James River couldn’t find enough to support a hatchery program. The same was true for most of Maryland’s rivers.

By 1994, the possibility of seeking protection under the federal Endangered Species Act for the silver fish was openly floated by Bay region scientists at a symposium.

Fast forward to 2003. “We’re seeing more shad in the river than we’ve seen in a long, long time,” said A.C. Carpenter, executive director of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. “It just exploded this year.”

On the James, this year’s catch rates were “off the wall,” said Tom Gunter, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “We had a lot of fish in the river.”

Maryland “had excellent adult runs this year,” said Steve Minkkinen, chief of hatchery programs for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

In the lower Susquehanna, Dale Weinrich, a DNR fisheries biologist, estimated the population at more than half a million fish, about 150 times the estimate 19 years ago. “I would characterize this year’s run as a good run,” he said. “Nothing spectacular. But the long-term trend is a nice, steady increase.”

Shad are an anadromous species—one that lives most of its life swimming in the ocean, but returns to its native freshwater river to spawn when it reaches the age of 4 or 5.

The spring spawning runs have become an annual gauge to measure the recovery of a fish almost written off a decade ago. Its restoration has been a priority for the Bay Program: No fish better links the Chesapeake to its tributary streams. Shad runs historically reached New York and Delaware.

All states in the watershed, except West Virginia (The Great Falls of the Potomac is a natural barrier keeping them out of the state) have active stocking programs which combine to place about 25 million hatchery-reared larvae in the water each year. In addition, tens of millions of dollars have been spent to build fish passages at dams, and a Baywide fishing moratorium has been in place for a decade

More efforts are on the way. Starting this year, the ocean shad fishery is being phased out along the East Coast to help protect recovery efforts in the Bay and elsewhere. Next year, work will begin to remove Embrey Dam on the Rappahannock, reopening the river to the Blue Ridge Mountains for spawning shad.

Still, officials caution that the shad population remains at only a fraction of its historic level. Despite what seems to be a strong comeback, one scientist estimates the population of the James is only about a 30th of what it was just a half century ago.

And a recovery in all rivers is by no means guaranteed. Populations in all rivers except the York, Rappahannock and possibly the Potomac, are dominated by hatchery fish—not wild fish—although biologists hope that will change in coming years.

“I think everybody’s a bit concerned that it is an artificial recovery,” said Greg Garman, director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “We hope that eventually those numbers will start to shift.”

With concerns still high, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission this spring voted to deny a permit for a water intake in the Mattaponi River, effectively killing a long-planned reservoir for Newport News. The reason: Scientists said the intake could threaten Virginia’s best shad river.

It’s a remarkable amount of interest and concern for a fish which is essentially a large, oily, bony herring. Once a favorite food source—it’s scientific name, Alosa sapidissima, translates into “most savory”—hardly anyone eats them anymore. Its reputation today is as a catch-and-release recreational fish with a lot of fight at the end of a line. Estimates put the recreational value of a restored shad fishery in the millions of dollars a year.

Its reputation as a sport fish is so great that Pulitzer prize-winning author John McPhee turned his attention to American shad for his latest book, “The Founding Fish,” which recounts the shad’s history and natural history, as he travels up and down the East Coast, fishing gear in hand.

Less than a century ago, American shad landings were second only to Atlantic cod in the United States. It was third in value, behind cod and Pacific salmon.

“It’s not a stretch to say that for about 200 years of our history, from the early 1700s to the early 1900s, it was certainly the most important freshwater fish in America,” said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “In colonial times, there was nothing that even compared with it in terms of sustaining people on the frontier.”

People would catch shad and salt and pickle them for future food. Those not living on rivers would travel for miles to stock up on shad. Stories abound of communities being saved from starvation by the early spring run of spawning shad.

As early as the late 1600s, fishermen fought—sometimes fatally—over the best places to set their nets or baskets along the lower Susquehanna. In the north branch of the Susquehanna River, not far from New York, there are reports of nearly 10,000 shad being taken in a single seine haul in the early 1800s. Fish were so plentiful that the excess supply was sometimes given to farmers for use as fertilizer, according to Richard Gerstell, author of the book, “American Shad in the Susquehanna River Basin.”

According to some, there might not even be a United States if it were not for shad. Legend has it that the spring shad run saved George Washington’s army from starvation at Valley Forge, although some cast doubt on that because of a lack of shad bones in archaeological sites at the encampment.

The reason for the lack of bones may be that the British, keenly aware of the importance of the shad run for the beleaguered troops, strung a net across the entire Schuylkill River to block the migration.

Washington, too, knew the importance of shad. He operated a commercial shad fishery on the Potomac at Mount Vernon. In one year, his records show, he caught 7,760 shad, as well as 760,060 smaller herring.

On April 1, 1865, the Union attacked and broke the Confederate line at a Virginia crossroads known as Five Forks. The Army of Northern Virginia surrendered less than two weeks later. The Confederate officers were not present at Five Forks because they had gone off to eat shad, which had just started their spring run in the James River.

By that time, though, shad were already starting to suffer from human impacts. Major spawning rivers were being closed to migrating fish, first by dams for canals, then by dams for electricity. In the early 1830s, the majority of the Susquehanna River was closed to shad by a canal dam at Columbia, effectively ending an upstream fishery which, according to Gerstell’s book, may have taken 570,000 fish a year.

Intense shad fishing continued elsewhere. By the late 1800s, shad was the top commercial fishery in the Bay, a position it held until the mid-1900s. But pressure was often relentless. One shad net used near the mouth of the Susquehanna was nearly a mile long and 30 feet deep.

Meanwhile, more—and bigger—dams were built, closing hundreds of miles of spawning habitat in the Susquehanna, James and Rappahannock rivers.

Catches gradually declined. St. Pierre estimates that the Chesapeake shad landings were 7–8 million fish annually in the late 1800s. By the mid-1970s, landings in all of Maryland and the Potomac were only a few thousand. Numbers were higher in Virginia, but by the 1990s, the James and Rappahannock rivers were each producing only a few hundred fish annually, and the York about 20,000.

In 1980, Maryland closed its portion of the Bay to shad fishing. Virginia imposed a moratorium on its portion of the Bay in 1994. Soon, instead of harvesting shad, stocking programs were in place trying to get the fish back.

Long before shad were important for the pioneers, many scientists believe they were essential for the rivers themselves—and everything living in them.

Runs of shad and their smaller cousins, blueback herring and alewife, once packed almost every river and stream on the East Coast in numbers unimaginable today. The fish had gained weight during their years swimming along the coast, and that ocean energy was transferred to small, freshwater streams in the form of eggs (which can account for a third of a female shad’s weight)—and the carcasses of any shad that died after spawning.

Shad and herring are among the earliest fish to migrate upstream. Those fats, minerals and other elements may have been critical fuel to spur the growth of other fish in energy-starved rivers and streams emerging from winter. “I just can’t imagine how important that energy subsidy was historically at a time when productivity was just staring in most of these freshwater systems,” Garman said.

Salmon in the Pacific Northwest are known to provide critical nutrients for everything from trees to bears. No one is certain the extent to which that is true for shad. Unlike salmon, shad in Bay tributaries do not necessarily die after spawning. While almost all shad spawn and die in southern rivers, few die in northern rivers. No one is certain how many live after spawning in the mid-Atlantic. A significant proportion of shad in the Chesapeake appear to be repeat spawners.

Even if most of the fish lived, Garman said, their historic numbers were so huge that their excretion of ammonia nitrogen alone may have been a critical source of nutrients to stimulate phytoplankton production in rivers.

Besides their role in streams, shad and herring were probably once important food for striped bass and other Bay predators as they migrated through. “During periods when they were abundant in Chesapeake Bay, they must have played an enormous role as a food source, just as menhaden are today,” said John Olney, a fisheries scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

One reason that some fisheries managers would like to see a shad rebound is to help support populations of smallmouth bass and other introduced predators in the rivers. But the presence of those predators may also limit the success of restoration efforts.

Scientists believe shad and herring spawning migrations that took them far upstream helped to protect the fish, as those areas were largely free of predators. That’s not true today. Freshwater rivers are filled with nonnative predators, including smallmouth bass, blue catfish, channel catfish and others—each of which are willing to take multiple bites out of any rebuilding shad population.

“We aren’t playing by the same rules that we were when American shad could historically move far up these rivers,” Garman said. “We’ve taking the whole fish community and kind of shuffled the deck, and we’ve added a bunch of new cards. Native species that used to be numerically dominant aren’t anymore. It’s a whole different system.”

Shad face other difficulties. Water quality, while improving in many rivers, is not what it was a century ago. And many rivers still have dams that impede fish migration.

Although fish passages have been built at many dams, they will never pass fish as efficiently as an open river. “Compared to removing dams, putting fishways in is a very weak solution to reopening historic habitat,” St. Pierre said.

This year, 125,000 migrating shad were passed over the $10 million “fish lift” at the 100-foot high Conowingo Dam. Located just 10 miles upstream of the Bay, it is the first of four major dams encountered by migrating fish. That made it the third best year since the lift began operating in 1991.

Still, the number passed over the dam was only a fraction of the more than half a million shad that the Maryland DNR estimated was in the river. And the number of fish moving upstream dropped with each dam until York Haven, about 80 miles from the Bay, where 2,535 fish were counted—just one of every 50 that passed Conowingo.

“It would have been a miracle if we built four fishways that were all wonderful and all these fish just wanted to steam up to New York,” St. Pierre said.

The same difficulties are true in the James River. Although shad numbers are rebounding in the lower river, relatively few went through the fishway at Boshers Dam at Richmond last year—just 1,066. Numbers for this year are not yet available.

Research is under way in both the Susquehanna and the James to find ways to “tweak” the operations to steer more shad to—and through—the passages.

“This is what we will work on for the next five years or more,” St. Pierre said. But he added, fish recoveries above the passages will likely never match the rebounds in areas below the dams.

In fact, the most remarkable comeback around the Bay has been on the Potomac River, which has no major shad blockage until the fish reach the Little Falls Dam. That only closed 10 miles of the river (now breached by a fishway) before the natural barrier of Great Falls.

By all accounts, the Potomac population is surging. Early spring fisheries surveys this year caught 93 fish per net, “which is by far a record,” said Jim Cummins, a biologist with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. Last year, only 50 per net were caught, and before that the numbers ranged from 17 to 20, he said.

Surveys of young produced each year have been so good that stocking efforts on the Potomac were halted last year.

No one is sure exactly why the Potomac has rebounded so strongly. Certainly the lack of fish blockages helped. “Attributing the rebound to any one factor is a mistake,” said Cummins, who believes that, for reasons that remain unclear, the river has always been particularly productive. Even in colonial times, Capt. John Smith—who had seen fish runs in many rivers—singled out the Potomac for special mention.

It was in the Potomac where Smith made his famous statement that fish were so thick that he tried catching them in a frying pan, “but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.” He resorted to other means: “I amused myself by nailing them to the ground with my sword.”

The Potomac is the only river—outside the York and Rappahannock—where surveys suggest that the majority of the spawning fish are wild, not hatchery-reared. That group may soon become smaller: The stocking of hatchery fish in the Rappahannock (with brood stock from the Potomac) began this year to rebuild its population.

While the Potomac’s comeback has been strong, it is the York which more than any other river is the genesis of the Bay’s shad comeback. In the early 1900s, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Indian tribes began stocking their respective rivers—which merge to create the York—with shad.

Although other shad operations were present in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were phased out, leaving the tribes’ hatcheries the only enduring shad stocking efforts on the East Coast.

Their action, author John McPhee observed in his book, “was foresight on a Nostradamian scale.” Shad populations were still relatively healthy at that time.

Whether because of the hatcheries, or because of natural factors within the river, the York fared better than everywhere else as populations in river after river collapsed. Techniques developed by the Pamunkey and Mattaponi were adopted by other hatcheries around the watershed. And fish from those rivers have been used as brood stock—at one point or another—for almost every other Bay tributary.

Most recently, efforts to rebuild the James River stock—a high priority for Virginia—had to turn to the York for fish because too few could be found in the James. “The fact that the York River stock is healthy is really the only saving grace that we have for the recovery program in the James,” Olney said.

Monitoring has shown the Mattaponi River in particular to be disproportionately productive for juvenile shad.

“The reason for that we’re not very clear about,” Olney said. “But it is a consistent observation that is upheld by close to 20 years of juvenile abundance sampling. So protection of American shad reproduction and nursery grounds on the Mattaponi River, we have advised Virginia Marine Resources Commission, should be a priority for them.”

The commission used that advice in May, blocking a controversial reservoir project that could have impacted the Mattaponi spawning ground.

No one talks of placing the shad on the endangered species list anymore. But after almost losing the fish once, many don’t want to take a chance with the “most savory” fish again.