For the first time in 172 years, American shad returned to the Susquehanna River’s headwaters in New York this spring. They didn’t come by river:
The larvae came by truck from a Pennsylvania hatchery.
Nonetheless, biologists hope the 250,000 larvae released this spring will remember where they came from after they migrate to the Atlantic Ocean this fall, then swim back on their own to spawn in four or five years.
“It’s a start,” said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “These are the first larval shad to see the New York part of the river since about 1829.”
That was the year before a dam was completed across the river at Nanticoke, a small town near Wilkes-Barre, PA, to supply water for a canal. That dam, 166 miles upstream from the river’s mouth, ended the shad run to New York, where it had supported an active fishery.
Shad once swan 444 miles upstream in the Susquehanna, all the way to its headwaters in Otsego Lake at Cooperstown, NY, where in 1789, an early run of shad and herring was credited with delivering the fledgling settlement from starvation.
Although the dam — and the canal — are long gone, other, bigger dams blocked the river, so shad never made it back to New York. Now, with passages built at major downstream dams, interest has grown in trying to get the fish all the way back upstream, prompting New York state officials to draft a multiyear stocking plan.
“Our intention is to stock a million fish a year there for at least the next five years,” St. Pierre said.
This spring’s stocking in the Susquehanna and a tributary, the Chemung River, was carried out by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in cooperation with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which manages water use in the river.
With this year’s effort by New York, all of the states where shad once swam in the watershed are now participating in restoration efforts. (Shad were never resident to West Virginia, where the route is blocked by Great Falls on the Potomac River.)
American shad are an anadromous fish, spending most of their lives migrating along the Atlantic Coast, but returning to their natal streams, starting at about age 4, to spawn. Because shad historically swam hundreds of miles up the Bay’s tributary rivers, they are viewed as a species that links the Chesapeake with citizens living throughout the watershed, and their restoration has been a priority for the Bay Program.
Shad restoration has focused on constructing fish passages at dams and removing other barriers to migration; improving water quality; restricting fishing pressure; and rebuilding the stock with hatchery-reared fish. All released larvae are treated with a dye that marks the fish’s ear bone, so biologists can identify hatchery fish — and which river they came from — in the future.
Shad once supported the most valuable commercial fishery in the Bay, but their numbers dwindled so low that fishing has been banned in Maryland since 1980, and in Virginia’s portion of the Bay since 1994. Also, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates migratory species along the coast, is phasing out shad fishing in the ocean as well.
Hatchery programs were still under way around the Bay in June, although it appeared that shad stocking efforts would decline somewhat from the record 31 million larvae placed in the water last year.
A series of technical problems at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Van Dyke Shad Hatchery on the Juniata River resulted in only about 1 million shad being stocked by mid-June. Normally, the hatchery averages about 10 million annually.
Elsewhere around the Bay, biologists reported poorer than normal survival among eggs gathered from returning shad for use in hatcheries. Jim Cummins, a biologist with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, theorized that reduced egg viability may have been caused “physiological confusion” in the fish as a result of this year’s “reverse spring” in which hotter than normal weather in late April was followed by a colder-than-normal May.
Still, outside the Susquehanna, almost all of the other rivers were able to produce enough eggs to meet their annual stocking targets, although most were stocking below last year’s level. Basinwide, it appeared that 20 million to 25 million shad were likely to be stocked.
Besides the Pennsylvania and New York stockings, Virginia officials placed 8.8 million larvae in the James River, and 3.3 million in the Pamunkey, where the Pamunkey Indians also stocked more than 3 million. The Mattaponi Indians stocked more than 3 million in the Mattaponi River as well.
Maryland efforts were still under way, but biologists expected to stock between 2 million and 3 million American shad, as well as millions more of their smaller relative, the hickory shad. Efforts led by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin stocked about 1.5 million in that river.
Around the Bay, officials reported strong shad runs — Virginia biologists said their run may have been the best in nearly 30 years — a payoff from nearly a decade of intensive stocking efforts in all major tributaries.
“According to a lot of these fishermen, they haven’t seen a run of American shad this good since the 1970s,” said Tom Gunter, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Only a decade ago, shad were so depleted in the James River that biologists couldn’t find enough egg-bearing adults to use in a hatchery program, forcing them to take fish from the nearby Pamunkey River.
Today, Gunter said, the returning shad have spurred interest in catch-and-release fishing outside Richmond, where as many as 50 boats at a time have been observed with anglers targeting American and hickory shad, whose numbers are also rebounding.
“The restoration, even though we are in the early phases, is already starting to have an economic impact, particularly here in the Richmond area,” Gunter said. “We have had just tremendous interest in that fishery from recreational anglers. We have two professional guides who are booked throughout the whole season going after these fish.”
Todd Custalow, who oversees the hatchery operation at the Mattaponi Indian Reservation in Virginia, which has stocked shad for decades, reported that the shad run was not only strong, but the fish were bigger than those seen in past years.
“We were catching larger shad than we’ve caught in a long time.” One shad, Custalow said, weighed 8 pounds. “He didn’t come out of the net easy.”
Likewise, in the Upper Bay, large numbers of shad — and bigger shad — were reported, said Dale Weinrich, a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Surveys taken on the Susquehanna River below the Conowingo Dam on some days were catching as many as six large shad weighing between 4.5 and 6.5 pounds, he said. In previous years, it was unusual to see two shad that size in a single day.
“I heard the same thing from shore anglers,” he said. “They had some of the biggest fish they’ve ever seen up there. Our recreational catch-and-release fisheries are just going to get better and better as we go along.”
Maryland has been stocking both American and hickory shad in the Patuxent and Choptank rivers since the mid-1990s, and recently launched stocking efforts in the Nanticoke River in conjunction with Delaware.
In the Patuxent River, where the state’s stocking efforts began, surveys indicate that more than 10 percent of the juveniles are non-hatchery fish — a sign that fish released early in the program are now beginning to return to the river and spawn on their own.
“It is very, very encouraging,” said Steve Minkkinen, of the DNR. “We are seeing more and more adults on the spawning grounds every year on rivers where we had seen no juveniles collected for two decades prior to stocking.”
Nowhere, though, does shad restoration face more challenges than on the Susquehanna River, which once boasted the largest shad spawning area on the East Coast.
Four large hydroelectric dams built nearly a century ago in the first 80 miles of the river shut the door to migration. The largest — Conowingo Dam — is only 14 miles from the Bay. Stocking efforts began on the river in the 1970s, and since 1991, fish passages have been built at all four dams to reopen the river.
This year, 108,000 fish passed the Conowingo Dam, which was below last year’s record of more than 193,000 fish, but was still the third best year at the dam.
But only a fraction of those fish — 17,522 — passed Holtwood, the next dam up the river.
St. Pierre blamed the low number of fish passing Holtwood on high river flows in May. Because Holtwood is a low dam, water easily spills over the top rather than predominantly at the fish lift. With water flowing over the dam everywhere, fish have trouble finding the current that leads them to the fish passage. “We’ve said this time and again,” he said. “High flows mean less fish,”
Through mid-June, 11,500 fish had made it past Safe Harbor Dam, and 1,500 past the York Haven Dam.
Between York Haven and New York, the only remaining obstacle is an inflatable rubber dam at Sunbury, PA, which is inflated before Memorial Day to create an impoundment for boaters.
A passage around the Sunbury dam is expected to be completed in 2004 — in time for the fish released in New York this year to make it back to spawn.