The new annual ritual of shad stocking hit record levels this year, as more than 33 million tiny fish were released in Bay tributaries this spring as part of an effort to rebuild the Chesapeake’s diminished American shad population.

That far exceeds the Bay Program’s annual goal of stocking between 20 million and 25 million annually.

“We had a crackerjack year,” exclaimed Tom Gunter, a biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who oversees the state’s restoration program.

The migratory fish, which spawns in freshwater rivers but spends most of its life swimming along the Atlantic Coast, was once the most valuable species in the Bay. But the shad population plummeted in recent decades as a result of overfishing, pollution and the construction of dams and other blockages that closed their historic spawning grounds.

Maryland closed its portion of the Bay to shad fishing in 1980, the Potomac was closed in in 1989, and Virginia closed its part of the Bay in 1994.

Restoring shad has been a major Bay Program priority in recent years with two components: stocking shad to help rebuild their population in historic spawning rivers, and building fish passages past dams that block their migration to those spawning grounds.

Stocking efforts this year were the best ever, far surpassing the 21 million young shad, or “fry,” released last year:

  • In Virginia, state and federal hatcheries produced about 14 million fry, of which 10 million went into the James River and 4 million into the Pamunkey — the river from which the eggs were taken.
  • The Pamunkey Indians released between 6 million and 7 million fry from their hatchery into the Pamunkey River. The hatchery was renovated during the past year with funds from the Bay Program and other state and federal agencies.
  • In Pennsylvania, 11.7 million fry were stocked in tributaries to the Susquehanna, the highest amount in years.
  • In the Potomac River, 1.6 million shad were stocked.
  • In Maryland, the Department of Natural Resources stocked more than 300,000 fry each in the Choptank and Patuxent rivers.

The Pamunkey Indians have been stocking shad in their river since 1918, when they opened a hatchery as part of their philosophy that they should return something to the river to make up for what they took. Today, the Pamunkey River is considered to have the healthiest shad population in the Bay watershed.

Hatchery efforts began in the Susquehanna basin in the 1970s. And, in the past few years, efforts have begun in Virginia, Maryland and the Potomac River, involving a host of partnerships among federal and state agencies, nonprofits, commercial and recreational fishermen, businesses and others.

Still, there are concerns about the future of the stocking efforts. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is responsible for managing migratory fish, is considering closing or restricting the catch of shad in the ocean — an action that could increase pressure to open rivers to fishing.

Virginia could be under particular pressure to open its rivers. If that happens, Gunter said, the stocking program in Virginia’s rivers would end. Based on a study that suggests only 1 of 400 stocked fry survive to return to spawn, Gunter estimated that each returning shad represents an investment of $13-$15.

“To have a $13 fish sold on the market for $3 or $4 just doesn’t make too much sense,” he said. “So we would cease the restoration effort if there was an open season.”

While releasing fish from hatcheries, biologists were also monitoring shad that returned to the rivers. Hatchery-raised fish are treated with tetracycline, in a process that creates a unique mark for each hatchery on the ear bone of the fish so their origins can be traced.

On the James River, biologists from Virginia Commonwealth University collected shad which, when analyzed, found that 89 percent of fish returning to spawn were hatchery-raised shad from 1994 and 1995.

“The hatchery adults are starting to show up on the spawning grounds,” Gunter said. “They’re doing what we wanted them to do.”

On the Susquehanna River — once the largest spawning ground for shad on the East Coast — 46,481 shad were passed beyond the Conowingo Dam this year. That was the third best year, following 103,000 in 1997 and 61,000 in 1995, for passing fish beyond the dam, which is the first of a series of large hydroelectric facilities that closed the river to migratory fish since the early part of the century.

Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said the number of fish passed was good news considering that fish lifts were closed during the entire month of April because of high river flows.

“We lost five weeks out of a 10 week season. All of our programs were just about stalled,” St. Pierre said. “At the end of April, we had about 2,000 shad, which is just pitiful.”

Fish lifts have been completed at two upstream dams from Conowingo — Safe Harbor and Holtwood — and a fish ladder is scheduled for completion at a fourth, York Haven, in 2000. At that point, hundreds of miles of the Susquehanna and its tributaries will be opened to spawning.

On the James River, a passage at the last blockage — Boshers Dam outside Richmond — will be completed this fall. That means next spring, returning shad will be able to swim all the way to Lynchburg, a destination that has been out of reach since 1803 because of downstream blockages.