IN the early part of this century, American shad were the most important commercial fish species in the Chesapeake Bay, with annual catches of about 17.5 million pounds reported.

Before that, the stocks were even larger: Colonial accounts tell of migrating fish packing the region's rivers during the spring spawn. "There are reports that wagons crossing the James River by Richmond used to squash the fish, there were so many," said Albert Spells, Virginia fisheries coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Obviously, things have "

Indeed. Faced with a collapse of the shad stock caused by overfishing, pollution and the closure of spawning grounds by dams, Maryland shut its portion of the Bay to shad fishing in 1980, the Potomac River followed in 1982 and Virginia in 1993.

But one river system - the York - avoided the crash. On an 1,100-acre tract granted under treaties with the King of England in 1646 and 1677, the Pamunkey Indians have been faithfully restocking their river - one of the York's two main tributaries - with hatchery-reared shad almost continuously since 1918.

No one is certain exactly why that hatchery was started when catches were near their peak. "We do know that the Pamunkey River has maintained shad while the other rivers have been closed up quite a bit," said Warren Cook, assistant chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe. "We don't know, but we think it's because of the hatchery."

Today, fisheries officials from around the Bay watershed are hoping that by doing what the Pamunkeys have done for the past eight decades, they can "jump start" the sagging shad population. This spring, fisheries managers expect to put nearly 30 million hatchery-raised shad -- a record number -- into Bay tributaries.

These operations owe a debt to the Pamunkey hatchery, where biologists learned shad-rearing techniques. For example, when Pennsylvania began its stocking efforts in the Susquehanna basin during the mid-1970s, it first sent biologists to learn from the Pamunkey operation including how to take care of young shad, which are sensitive to handling. Eggs from Pamunkey shad have also been used in hatcheries around the watershed.

The Bay Program may soon help repay the region's debt by providing technical assistance, and possibly a small grant, to the Pamunkey Indians to help them improve their hatchery operations.

ÒI think it's time we give something back to them said Carolyn Watson, chair of the Bay program's Living Resources Subcommittee. "It's apparent, at least anecdotally, that their efforts saved a river system."

The Pamunkeys" efforts began with a gasoline-powered engine that pumped river water through an 1,800-gallon glass tank where the fish were reared. The operation, made expensive because of the gasoline engine, continued until World War II, according to Cook.

After World War II, the tribe made use of state and federal programs to develop a new hatchery operation, with major expansions coming in 1989 and 1993.

Last year, the hatchery produced 181 liters of eggs. With an average of 35,000 eggs per liter and an estimated survival rate of 65 percent, Cook said the production was "pretty good for a pretty small hatchery."

Cook, who described the hatchery operation at a recent meeting of the Bay program's Living Resources Subcommittee, said shad have been an important source of income for the Pamunkeys, whose reservation is located about 40 miles east of Richmond. While they may no longer sell the fish because of the state shad moratorium, they can still catch shad for their own use.

"It was a livelihood -- for food and for sale -- up until two years ago," Cook said. Cook said he hopes the hatchery efforts around the Bay will help end the moratoriums.

In the past few years, hatchery-based shad restoration efforts have begun in all the Bay's major rivers, and all are gearing up to put tens of millions of shad fry -- tiny fish only a few days or weeks old -- into the water this spring.

Those efforts include:

  • In Susquehanna River, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's 20-year-old Van Dyke shad hatchery will seek to match its annual goal of releasing 10 million fry into the Juniata River, the largest tributary of the Susquehanna. The Susquehanna operation is, after the Pamunkey hatchery, the oldest fish stocking operation in the watershed, dating to 1976.
  • In the Potomac, where 1.2 million shad fry were stocked last year, an effort led by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin seeks to stock another 1 million this year.
  • In Virginia, a state program operated by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, with support from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, has stocked 9.9 million fry in the past two years, with 7 million of the fish going into the James River, and the rest being returned to the Pamunkey, from which they were taken. This year, officials hope to stock 9 million shad fry, with three quarters going into the James and one quarter into the Pamunkey
  • In Maryland, which began a pilot program in 1993, state Department of Natural Resource officials this year hope to stock between 4 million and 6 million shad in the Patuxent and Choptank rivers.

Despite the activity, the goal is for the hatcheries to work themselves out of business by building a self-sustaining shad population.

"Hatcheries are only a tool," Spells said. "We don't want to give the public the idea we can restore these populations just by dumping fish. You want to address water quality."

The basic idea behind hatcheries is to help out fish reproduction. Shad, for example, are "broadcast" spawners: Females release eggs into the water and a male fertilizes the area. Only a small percentage of the eggs, anywhere from 5 percent to 35 percent, actually hatch into shad larvae.

By taking eggs out of female fish and putting them in containers with sperm, the fertilization rate at hatcheries is much higher. And by incubating and rearing eggs in the hatchery, a considerable amount of natural mortality, such as predation on eggs and larvae, is avoided.

While the hatcheries may be able to more efficiently raise fish, a healthy shad population in the Bay would quickly be able to outstrip hatchery production, noted Richard St. Pierre, who coordinates shad restoration efforts on the Susquehanna River for the USF&WS. An adult female, he said, can produce several hundred thousand eggs. "A small number of good spawning fish can overwhelm whatever we can do," St. Pierre said.

But the recovery process will likely be slow. Mike Hendricks, Anadromous Fish Restoration Unit Leader of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said studies during the late 1980s found that it took 443 fry released at the state hatchery to return one spawning adult to the Susquehanna several years later. But by the early 1990s, that had dropped to 409 fry to return one adult.

"I don't know how you feel about those numbers," Hendricks said, "but I used to tell sportsmens" groups that I'd be happy if 1 in 1,000 made it back. We're obviously doing better than that."