More than 32,000 American shad swam up the Susquehanna River this spring, setting a new record for the 2-decade-old effort to return the migratory fish to what used to be its largest East Coast spawning ground.

The 32,330 shad captured in the fish lift at the Conowingo Dam was up sharply from the 13,500 caught last year and surpassed the previous record of 27,200 set in 1991. The fish lift quit operation for the year in mid-June as the numbers of returning shad dwindled.

"It's a good year," said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's amazing that we're talking about closing down operations because we only have 50 fish a day. There were years where those were the big days, and we would go on even with five fish a day."

It was not the only good news for shad in the Chesapeake Bay, though.

Shad were successfully stocked for the second straight year in the James River in Virginia, with more than 2 million juvenile fish released, a five-fold increase from last year. Officials are uncertain whether they will have the money to continue their s had hatchery operation next year.

In addition, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has begun work on a draft multistate management plan that is expected to offer greater protection for the fish as they migrate along the Atlantic coast.

From the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, shad was the most valuable fish harvested in Maryland and Virginia. But catches fell sharply after the early 1970s; Maryland closed the Bay to shad fishing in 1980, and Virginia followed suit last year.

The decline has been blamed on overfishing, pollution, and the closure of spawning grounds by dams and other barriers. Shad is an anadromous fish - it spends most of its life at sea but swims far up rivers to spawn. Before being closed by a series of dams, the Susquehanna once provided the largest spawning territory on the East Coast.

Two decades ago, efforts to return the shad to the Susquehanna began with the opening of a hatchery on one of its tributaries, the Juniata River. When those fish return to spawn, they are captured in a fish lift at the 100-foot-high Conowingo Dam, located only a few miles upstream from the Bay, and trucked beyond three other hydroelectric dams before being released near Harrisburg so they can swim upstream.

The utilities that own the three upstream dams last year signed agreements to build fish lifts at their facilities by the year 2000, effectively opening the river to fish migration. Although fish require lifts to move upstream over the dams, for the most part spawned juvenile fish are able to move downstream through the dams without aid.

In Virginia, another effort has built fish passages at most of the dams around Richmond. When the final passage is completed in 1996, migrating shad will be able to swim up the James River - the Bay's largest tributary in Virginia - as far as Lynchburg, about 150 miles upstream from Richmond.

Last year, 418,000 hatchery-reared shad were stocked in the James.

This year, the effort was bolstered with help from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission which, following a recommendation from its Marine Advisory Board, used $40,000 to hire commercial fishermen to catch spawning shad in the Pamunkey River. Eggs from the fish were used for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' hatchery project.

In all, 2.1 million shad were raised at three hatcheries for the James River project - U.S Fish and Wildlife Service's Harrison Lake Hatchery, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Van Dyke Hatchery, and DGIF's King and Queen Hatchery. Of the hatchery-raised fish, 1.6 million went into the James and a half million went back into the Pamunkey, said Tom Gunter, DGIF fisheries biologist and American shad restoration coordinator. "Our goal was 2 million this year and we exceeded that. This year's oper ation was a real success in our eyes."

But the future of the project is uncertain. While most of the department's activities are funded by hunting and fishing license fees and matching federal dollars, the shad project has been funded out of the state general fund. The General Assembly did not include money for the program - which costs roughly a $200,000 a year - in next year's budget.

"It's going to take 10 to 15 years before we see any kinds of results or recovery for the American shad in the James" assuming the hatchery continues operation, Gunter said. Without it, he said, "you're talking about a minimum of 20 to 30 years before th e population can build back up."

An experimental project in Maryland to stock hatchery-reared shad in the Patuxent and lower Susquehanna rivers also entered its second year. Pennsylvania's Van Dyke Hatchery, meanwhile, had received more than 15 million shad eggs by mid-June to continue its 2-decade-old effort to stock shad in the Juniata River.

This year's good news for the Chesapeake contrasted sharply with continued problems for major spawning grounds to the north. Final population estimates were not available, but St. Pierre described the Connecticut River - with the largest remaining shad population on the East Coast - as "lousy," New England's Merrimack River as "a bust," the Hudson River as "typically down as it has been for the last several years," and the Delaware River as "off."

South Carolina and Georgia, the only other states for which information was available, appeared to be having a good year, St. Pierre said.

Last year, the number of shad that returned to spawn fell roughly 50 percent all along the East Coast. Biologists do not know what caused the decline.

A prime suspect has been some climatic change, such as a switch in currents which may have veered a large portion of the population out to sea. But St. Pierre said a continued decline would call that explanation into question.

"If last year really was a climate-related event, then there's no reason to think we should see it again this year," St. Pierre said. "Major climate-related occurrences - things that could actually move coastal currents - aren't going to occur year after year."

A continued decline, St. Pierre said, could indicate ongoing problems such as fishing pressure or - as some have recently suggested - losses caused by predation from increased striped bass stocks. The latter explanation, he said, runs counter to the Chesapeake Bay experience where both shad and striped bass stocks are increasing.

Efforts to help stocks all along the coast may be bolstered by the development of a new fisheries management plan. The Bay Program is expected to make a grant to the Maryland DNR this summer so it can draft a plan for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

ASMFC is a multistate compact made up of the 17 East Coast jurisdictions. Under a law passed by Congress last year, states must comply with requirements of ASMFC management plans - including fishing restrictions - or risk a federally imposed fishing mora torium for the affected species.

But the ASMFC's existing shad plan is too vague to be enforceable. While it discourages the so-called "intercept fishery" - where shad are harvested as they migrate along the coast - the plan does not explicitly prohibit it.

"It can really only be described as sort of a skeleton plan," said Pete Jensen, director of the DNR's Fisheries Division. "It just lays out the coastal problem and suggests that some things might be done."

Jensen said it was too early to discuss the details of the new plan, but that it would deal with the issue of the intercept fishery and address the shad stocks for each major river system along the coast.

Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the new plan should close the coastal fishery altogether. Fish from several different river systems migrate together along the coast, he said, making it impossible to protect the population that spawns in a particular river.

"How are we to manage the restoration of the Susquehanna population of shad if they are harvested along with other stocks up and down the coast during their migration?" he asked. "It's virtually impossible to do that."

Because of that, Goldsborough said, shad fishing should be confined to spawning rivers where each stock can be managed according to its condition.

"For shad, your traditional fishery has been in the tributaries," he said, "and the ocean fishery is relatively new. I think the objective ought to be to try to restore and maintain the traditional fisheries."

Jensen said the shad plan may be "the forerunner of a new generation" of management plans for fish. While dealing with fishing issues - as past plans have - the new plan will likely also address habitat as an important issue for shad recovery.

Dams and other barriers to migration have contributed to the shad decline by closing their spawning grounds. In addition, shad are very sensitive to pollution; a fouled environment effectively closes their habitat.

"The Delaware River had what they called a pollution block for many years coming from the Philadelphia-Wilmington area," Jensen said. "There was such poor quality water, the shad wouldn't even go through it. They would turn around. They did a pretty dece nt job of cleaning that up, and the shad population has rebounded."