Since it began rearing shad 41 years ago, Pennsylvania’s Van Dyke Research Station has released more than 227 million tiny fish into the Susquehanna River basin.The Van Dyke shad hatchery is one of three Pennsylvania hatcheries that may be closed. (Will Parsons/Chesapeake Bay Program)

But this might be the last year that the hatchery — located along the Juniata River, one of the Susquehanna’s main tributaries — rears and releases the migratory fish. The operation may fall victim to a budget dispute between lawmakers and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

The cash-strapped commission — blocked twice in recent years by the state legislature from increasing fishing license fees — voted 6–4 in September to allow its executive director, John Arway, to make $2 million in budget cuts. Those cuts would close three hatcheries, including Van Dyke, and would take effect in 2019.

Though the commission is an independent state agency, its fee increases must be approved by the legislature. The last fishing license fee increase was in 2005, and while the Senate twice approved proposed fee increases in recent years, both proposals died in the House.

“We have been trying for four years to get a license fee increase,” said Eric Levis, communications director for the commission.

Shad fry. (Dave Harp)But the commission’s budget cut proposal has angered some legislators, especially as the targeted hatcheries are all in districts of lawmakers opposed to fee increases. One of them, Sen. Joseph Scarnati, a Republican from Potter County, responded by introducing a bill that would limit the term of the commission’s executive director to eight years — a milestone Arway would hit in March.

Unlike many of his fellow Republican House members, who have refused to vote for any legislation they consider to be a tax increase, Rep. Keith Gillespie of York County thinks the commission should be allowed to raise its fees. And, as chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee, he believes fee increases are also necessary for the state Game Commission, which faces similar budget issues.

But Gillespie said the Fish and Boat Commission’s threatened action is politically more hurtful than helpful. 

“Quite frankly there has been so much damage done, even if the cure for cancer was in this fee increase…I don’t think I could get the support of the committee members or the General Assembly to pass it, just because of how badly the well’s been poisoned,” Gillespie said.

In the balance is the most productive shad hatchery in the Bay watershed, which in some years has produced more than 10 million small shad for release. 

A little more than a decade ago, hatcheries around the Bay frequently produced more than 20 million shad per year, which were stocked in most major rivers around the Bay watershed, though the bulk went to the Susquehanna or Virginia’s James River.

Virginia officials plan to stop stocking the James River this year as one of their own cost-saving measures. If the Van Dyke hatchery closes, the only remaining stocking operations would be much smaller efforts on the Choptank and Nanticoke rivers on the Eastern Shore.

Josh Tryninewski, the commission biologist who oversees Van Dyke, said that nearly 50 percent of the shad returning to spawn on the Susquehanna each spring were produced at the hatchery. “It’s a pretty sizable portion of that population that is below Conowingo Dam,” he said.

The longtime goal of the hatchery has been to help rebuild the river’s shad population by releasing young fish, called fry, into the river. Four to five years later, the fish instinctively return to the river to spawn — if they can get beyond Conowingo and three other hydroelectric dams on the river.

Ineffective fish passages at the dams have hampered those efforts, but recent agreements with the owners of Conowingo and other dam operators are spurring new investments aimed at helping to get fish upstream.
Until those improvements are complete, Conowingo’s owner, Exelon Corp., is planning to begin capturing shad below the dam and trucking them around the other hydroelectric facilities and releasing them upstream.

But that was intended to supplement, not replace, the hatchery stocking, Tryninewski said. 

“It is a pretty important part of the restoration effort right now, and it has been for some time,” he said. “But we’re faced with a reality, that we’re limited in funds.”