The last time fish could swim up the James River past Richmond, Andrew Jackson was president, the first American clipper was being launched in Baltimore and the government was at war with the Black Hawk Indians in Wisconsin.
But after 167 years of closure, migrating fish this spring were able to pass Boshers Dam — the last remaining obstacle to fish between the mouth of the James and Lynchburg.
The $1.4 million passage reopens hundreds of miles of spawning habitat to migratory fish such as American shad, which is the focus of major restoration efforts throughout the Bay.
“We’re very happy that it’s open,” said David Whitehurst, director of planning, policy and public relations for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “We’re very happy that we have American shad going through it.”
Although construction was completed last fall, this was the first year the fish passage was open for the spring spawning run of shad, herring and other migratory species.
The project makes available 138 miles of the “mainstem” James River — basically from Richmond to Lynchburg — and another 168 miles of tributaries, according to DGIF.
“This is the longest stretch of river opened by a single fish passageway to date on the entire East Coast,” said John Paul Woodley, Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources, at a dedication ceremony in April.
Although that distinction will be short-lived — completion of a passage at the York Haven dam on the Susquehanna later this year will open more than twice as many miles — the project is concrete testimony to the success of a unique public-private partnership that made the passage possible.
State and federal agencies, the City of Richmond, and a host of groups, businesses, individuals and foundations raised the initial $700,000 to construct the passage. When the lowest bid came in at twice that amount, they raised another $700,000 in a matter of weeks to make the project possible.
“It’s just been really rewarding to see how the local community responded to this thing,” Whitehurst said.
Archaeological evidence indicates that shad historically ranged at least as far up the river as Eagle Rock, west of the Blue Ridge mountains. And colonial records indicate that Thomas Jefferson used to buy shad at Shadwell, far up the Rivanna, a James tributary.
But most of the James has been off-limits to migratory fish for nearly two centuries not just because of Boshers, but because of other, older dams farther downstream that have been gradually opened in recent years.
Exactly how long it will take for sizable numbers of shad to take advantage of those openings and return up the James is uncertain.
“You’ve got an awful long time that no fish have been there at all,” Whitehurst said. “You’ve got generations and generations of fish that have not come from that area.”
Shad spend most of their lives swimming along the coast, but return to the river where they were hatched to spawn. Since 1994, the state has been releasing hatchery-reared fish upstream to “imprint” the area on the fish in the hope that they will return when they reach maturity in about three years.
In the early part of this century, American shad were the most valuable commercial fish in the Bay. Today, populations are only a fraction of historic levels and most fish in major river systems — including the Susquehanna and the James — stem from large-scale stocking efforts aimed at rebuilding the population.
The decline has been blamed on overfishing, pollution and dams, which have closed much of their historic spawning grounds.
In recent years, the Bay Program has helped to coordinate a major effort to construct fish ladders, lifts and other devices to help shad and other migratory fish return to their historic spawning grounds. The Bay Program, in 1993, set a fish passage goal of opening 1,356 miles of “mainstem” rivers by 2003.
With the opening of Boshers Dam, 523.5 miles of river have been reopened.
Mileage should jump this fall when a fish passage is completed at York Haven in Pennsylvania — the last of four major hydroelectric dams on the lower Susquehanna to get a passage. That will open 435 miles of the Susquehanna and major tributaries, said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
A number of smaller projects are also in the works for this year, including a passage at the Little Falls Dam on the Potomac, which will reopen 10 miles of prime spawning habitat.
“1999 will be a big year just because of York Haven,” said St. Pierre, who also chairs the Bay Program’s Fish Passage Workgroup. “By the end of 1999, we’re going to be at well over 1,000 miles, maybe over 1,100 toward the goal of 1,357.”
That actually undercounts the progress, he added, because the Bay Program only counts “mainstem” river miles toward the goal. Many fish passages, such as Boshers, open up suitable spawning habitat on smaller streams, but they are not counted. York Haven, for example, will actually open more than 700 miles of habitat.
“Realistically, when we’re done in 2003, we’ll have opened more like 2,000 miles of usable migratory fish habitat,” St. Pierre said.