On April days, as they've done almost every spring since 1918, the Pamunkey Indians are busy raising thousands of shad fry in their riverside hatchery in King William County, VA. A typical day sees the hatchery staff tending to their bubbling tanks of fry as brine shrimp aerators, rearing food for the fry, hum in the background.
On April 13, though, the scene was interrupted by dozens of people milling around the light gray shed. The visitors were staring into the new holding tanks, looking for the tell-tale, black eye dots of the tiny shad larvae while getting a first-hand tour of the Pamunkey tribe's newly renovated American shad hatchery.
Dressed in colorful, Native American garb, including a headdress with bright yellow, red and white feathers, Pamunkey Chief William P. Miles welcomed an array of federal and state officials, including U.S.
Representative Robert Scott (D-VA), to the hatchery dedication.
"We're proud of this hatchery," Miles said, highlighting the commitment the tribal government made to sustain the fishery years ago. "We have always maintained that if you take fish from the river, you should put some back."
From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, shad was the most economically valuable fish harvested for food in Maryland and Virginia waters. But habitat degradation, combined with overfishing and stream blockages, such as dams, caused dramatic declines in the shad fishery.
Recent years have seen a turnaround, though. Baywide stocking efforts and a moratorium on shad fishing in the Chesapeake have helped to increase the number of shad.
"The Pamunkey have kept hope alive for shad over the years and now we're beginning to see the return," said Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office.
"The shad stock in this river is one of the best on the East Coast and we'd like to think we've had a small part in that," Miles said. From 1989 to 1997, more than 32 million young shad were released into the wild from the Pamunkey facility.
American shad from the Pamunkey are one of the species' healthier strains and remain that way, many think, because of the stocking program the Tribal Government has sustained over the last 80 years. Owned and operated by the Pamunkey Tribal Government, the shad hatchery is one of the oldest still in operation in the United States. It conducts egg taking, egg incubation and fry rearing.
The recent renovations were made possible through a $90,000 Bay Program grant and matching funds from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Other partners include the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"There can be no better example of positive cooperation to protect our natural resources than the new hatchery we dedicate today," said Virginia Natural Re-sources Secretary John Paul Woodley Jr.
At the event, Matuszeski also announced an additional Bay Program grant of $43,000 to cover the hatchery's 1999 operating costs.
For the past 20 years, VMRC has awarded grants to the tribe to help operate the hatchery. "Every dollar is matched and more by Virginia," Matuszeski said. "This is a true partnership between the Pamunkey Tribe, the Commonwealth and the federal government." The renovations to the Pamunkey hatchery mark the start of a new phase of evaluation for measuring the success of hatchery-raised shad Baywide. This is possible because the improvements will allow the tribe to begin oxytetracycline tagging. The chemical creates a signature, which is distinct for each hatchery, on the otolith bone of each released fish. Now, when mature shad are collected and studied, fishery managers will be able to accurately evaluate how much each hatchery's activities - including the tribe's - are contributing to the restoration effort.
The Chesapeake is the only region in the nation currently conducting large-scale hatchery production of American shad. Between 1986 and 1997, a total of 184 million American shad fry and fingerlings were cultured and released in direct support of restoration programs in the Pamunkey, James, Susquehanna and Potomac rivers, as well as several Maryland tributaries.
Pamunkey River shad have been used to supply eggs for other American shad restoration programs on the Susquehanna and James rivers.
Hundreds of miles of fish habitat will be reopened to anadromous fish such as shad and striped bass in the next few years. Virginia plans to have Boshers Dam outside Richmond open to migratory fish in time for the 1999 run and Pennsylvania is working to install lifts on the fourth - and final - Susquehanna dam by 2000.
Citing the recent fish passage improvements on the Susquehanna River, including the opening of two new fish lifts in 1997, Matuszeski said, "We can only hope that some day, one of the fry from here supplied to the Susquehanna will become the first shad to return and reach Lake Otsego in New York, one of the farthest sources of water to the Chesapeake Bay."