Back in 1886, Stephen F. Baird, head of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, lamented that “many years will lapse,” before the Potomac River produced the numbers of shad seen decades earlier.
In his annual report, he noted that while the river was still “very productive,” it didn’t measure up to the standards of the 1830s when 4,000 shad were “frequently” taken in a single haul of a seine net and the total annual catch was about 22.5 million.
Baird’s concern was well-founded. More than a century after he wrote his assessment, things have continued to worsen. Today, the river supports only about 10,000 shad.
Officials hope a new fish passage that will open 10 miles of the Potomac to shad and other migratory fish will help turn the situation around. On Oct. 12, they held a ceremonial “dam breaking” to begin the construction of a $1.5 million fishway at the Little Falls Dam, about two miles north of the District of Columbia.
“For seven years, I’ve watched hundreds of cities restore their communities by restoring their rivers,” said Department of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. “Since 1959, Little Falls dam has kept seven species of shad, herring, perch and striped bass from spawning in our neighborhood. That ends today.”
Ironically, biologists designed a fish passage for the dam when it was built 40 years ago as part of the Washington area’s drinking water supply. But that fishway never worked for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it was placed in an area where there was little flow to attract the upstream-swimming fish.
The new fish passage at the 12-foot-high dam was designed to meet the needs of shad and other regional migratory fish. It consists of a notch at the top and a labyrinth of weirs within, and downstream, of the notch. The weirs decrease the velocity of water flowing through the passageway, allowing fish to swim upstream.
“This is a great story of mankind trying to heal the wounds which he has inflicted on a great river,” said Mike Hayden, president of the American Sportfishing Association, who helped to launch the dam project eight years ago while an assistant secretary at the Interior Department.
At the urging of U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, a coalition of 17 federal, state, regional and local agencies, as well as nonprofit groups, worked together to plan the passage and support stocking efforts intended to jump-start the return of shad.
Shad were once one of the Bay’s most important fish, but decades of harvest pressure, pollution and dam construction reduced their population to the point that shad fishing is banned in the Chesapeake.
Because shad is an anadromous fish — one that lives most of its life off the coast but returns to its native river to spawn — reopening spawning grounds has been a major part of shad restoration efforts.
Earlier this year, the completion of a passage at Boshers Dam in Richmond reopened almost the entire James River to migrating fish.
And this fall, efforts to reopen the Susquehanna — historically, the largest East Coast spawning area for shad — are near completion. Work on a $9 million fish passage at the York Haven Dam, the last of four hydroelectric dams that have closed the river to migratory fish since 1910, was expected to be finished by the end of October.
“Probably sometime in November, we’ll put water through it and do a little bit of operational testing just to make sure things are working the way they are supposed to,” said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and chair of the Bay Program’s Fish Passage Workgroup.
With the York Haven fish passage completed, along with elevator-like fish lifts at three downstream dams, the Susquehanna next spring will be open for shad and other migratory fish all the way to New York.
Compared with the Susquehanna, the Little Falls project will open a mere 10 miles of spawning habitat before fish reach a natural barrier to migration — the Great Falls of the Potomac.
But that stretch may be particularly important. Shad spawn in free-flowing fresh water. While the Susquehanna has hundreds of miles of such habitat, the Potomac has only about 40 miles of free-flowing water between tidal areas around Fort Belvoir downstream, and the Great Falls which halts migration upstream. That means the dam blocks almost a quarter of the suitable spawning habitat.
“You would think the longer the free flowing part the better,” said Jim Cummins, a biologist with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, who has led shad restoration efforts on the waterway.
Despite such a small spawning area, the Potomac historically was known for its shad productivity. Even Capt. John Smith singled out the Potomac among Bay tributaries for its fish production.
“It must have been a particularly remarkable abundance considering his channels up and down the coast,” Cummins said.
Because of the short distance available to shad and other anadromous spawners, the extra 10 miles yielded by the Little Falls passage may prove to be particularly important. In part, that’s because eggs released by spawning shad float downstream for several days before they hatch.
The further upstream the fish can swim, the greater the chance the deposited eggs will hatch in suitable habitat, Cummins said.
Although the Little Falls dam only dates to 1959, other small dams have blocked the same area for more than a century. They have gradually been removed or breached, leaving Little Falls as the last remaining obstacle. But the long history of blockages means there is little scientific information about how important the area may be, Cummins said.
“There is pretty good historical evidence that shad and striped bass went to Great Falls in great numbers,” he said. “I have this real gut feeling that it’s going to be important, significantly important, that we will see some big changes. I think people are going to be catching fish up there.”
To speed up the recovery, the interstate commission and others have cooperated in a stocking effort to “imprint” the area above the dam on young shad in the hope they will return to the area and spawn when they mature. The huge fish stocks described by Baird may not return anytime soon, but the fishway and stocking efforts may speed the day anglers can hook a shad, a fish prized for its fighting ability.
Interior Secretary Babbitt is already counting on it. “I’ve got my fishing rod ready to meet their return,” he said.