When I pulled up to Pennsylvania’s Van Dyke Hatchery one morning in early May, what struck me was how little it had changed. It was still the same plywood building with a tin roof that I had described in a story after my last visit — 28 years ago — as looking “more like something out of the low-rent district than a one-of-a-kind hatchery.”
It’s not exactly one of a kind, but it is one of the few hatcheries that focus almost exclusively on shad. Biologists there still use pretty much the same techniques and often the same equipment — down to a turkey feather to stir eggs — as they did back then.
But the goal for which the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission established and operates the hatchery has still not been achieved: returning a shad population to the Susquehanna River. It’s not for lack of trying. Since opening in 1976, the hatchery has pumped 281 million tiny shad back into Susquehanna tributaries.
Unfortunately, the population hasn’t responded as hoped, but that has a lot to do with factors beyond the hatchery’s control — most fish passages at dams on the river never worked as well as expected to help fish return to spawning grounds.
And it’s likely that large numbers are netted as bycatch in the ocean where they spend much of their lives.
Despite that, the hatchery is still responsible for half of the shad found in the river below the Conowingo Dam, the first of four dams that fish encounter during their upstream migration on the Susquehanna.
But hatchery-reared shad have performed well outside the Bay watershed. All of the shad on the West Coast were introduced from eggs imported from our region in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They did so well there that, in its early years of operation, many of the eggs for the Van Dyke Hatchery came from the Columbia River in Washington.
How are shad doing there today? Last year, 497,738 shad were counted in a fish passage at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River in a single day — nearly half as many as the total number of shad that have passed Conowingo in the last 20 years.
It is hoped that a political squabble in Pennsylvania over funding doesn’t close the doors of Van Dyke before it gets more time to finish the job it was built for.
A win for Tim Wheeler
Congratulations to our associate editor and senior writer, Tim Wheeler, who won a first-place award in May from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association. Wheeler received the award for environmental reporting among non-daily news outlets with circulations of more than 20,000 readers, specifically for his coverage last fall about pollution problems stemming from a Baltimore scrap yard that impacted local waterways. His story in the November 2017 issue drew attention by highlighting stalled action on enforcement. By December, he reported that a settlement — involving both a cash penalty and stormwater management upgrades — had been reached.