A year ago, Pennsylvania’s shad hatchery — the largest in the Chesapeake Bay watershed — was spared the budget-cutting ax. But it still took a toll on American shad stocking efforts on the Susquehanna River.These shad were caught on the Potomac River, which maintains one of the healthiest stocks of shad on the East Coast. (Dave Harp)

The state’s Van Dyke Research Station released just 830,000 shad larvae into the Bay’s largest tributary this year, the smallest number in the hatchery’s 43-year history. Uncertainty over funding kept contracts from being completed for egg collections on the Potomac River, the largest source for the hatchery.

Instead, the hatchery had to rely on eggs collected at Conowingo Dam near the mouth of the Susquehanna, where production is always less than the Potomac.

Biologists from Maryland Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service donated some of the eggs they collected from the Potomac to help out. Otherwise, production would have fallen to 557,000.

“That definitely helped this year,” said Josh Tryninewski, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologist who operates the hatchery.

The Van Dyke situation contributed to what was, overall, a mixed year for shad restoration efforts around the Bay.

While shad stocking fared better in Maryland and Delaware, the production loss in Pennsylvania accelerated a downward trend in shad stocking around the Bay. The effort peaked nearly 20 years ago when hatcheries were rearing and releasing 25 million shad or more a year into rivers from New York to Virginia. This year, fewer than 5 million shad will be stocked throughout the Bay region.

Shad spawning runs were the worst-ever on the James, and the number of shad passed by the fish lift at Conowingo Dam — 4,787 — was the lowest since it went into operation in 1997 and a fraction of its peak of 193,574 in 2001. Biologists said high river flows during the spawning run contributed to the poor performance.

But all of the news wasn’t bad. The spawning run on the Potomac River racked up another record year, averaging 48.9 per net in surveys on the river, according to the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. The river maintains one of the healthiest stocks on the East Coast.

“The Potomac is amazing,” said Chuck Stence, a biologist with the Maryland DNR who collects shad eggs on the river each year for the state’s hatchery operation.

Monitoring by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science also showed shad spawning runs ticked up a bit on the York River, but runs were below recent levels on the Rappahannock.

Shad are an anadromous species, which means they spawn in freshwater rivers but spend most of their lives in the ocean until they return to their native river to reproduce, usually starting when they are around 5 years old.

They were once hugely abundant in the Chesapeake watershed, and their massive upstream migrations in the spring once supplied an important food source for native people and then colonists living far up the region’s rivers. With habitat connections to both the Bay and its headwater areas, shad is a priority species for the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program.

But decades of overfishing, pollution and dam construction have left the spawning runs from most rivers along the East Coast near historic lows. To help the fish rebound in the Bay region, states for decades have worked to improve fish passage, stocked millions of hatchery-reared shad and monitored annual spawning runs.

The largest of the hatchery operations was historically the Van Dyke facility on the Juniata River, a major tributary of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania, which began operating in 1977. Its future was called into question last year when the state Fish and Boat Commission threatened to close it and two other hatcheries as part of a budget-cutting move. Although the commission is an independent agency, license fee increases have to be approved by the legislature, and they haven’t risen since 2005.

The threatened cut angered lawmakers, and the commission’s executive director, John Arway, ultimately resigned. Lawmakers said they would take up legislation to allow a fee increase, but that still hasn’t happened.

Nonetheless, commission spokesman Mike Parker said the agency is “committed to keeping Van Dyke operations as normal.” He said funding is in place to continue egg collection at Conowingo next year. And, he said, “we are still working on and optimistic that Potomac egg collection will be funded as well.”

The Van Dyke hatchery alone once routinely churned out more than 10 million shad a year for stocking around the Susquehanna basin, though in more recent years its production has been in the 3 million to 4 million range.

Stocking efforts in Maryland and Delaware fared better this year.

In Maryland, DNR biologists stocked an above-average 2.4 million shad larvae and another 465,000 juveniles, 30-40 days old, into the Choptank, Stence said.

In Delaware, Johnny Moore, a fisheries biologist with the state’s Department of Natural Resources
and Environmental Control, said more than 800,000 larval shad were stocked in the Nanticoke — “well above our average” — and approached the
record of just more than a million stocked in 2017.

The shad population on the Nanticoke remains “relatively low” despite stocking efforts launched in 2000, Moore said, but he added that “without our efforts, I think it would be a lot worse than it is right now.”

Shad have proven difficult to recover in most rivers, and many biologists say efforts to rebuild the stock will likely take decades.

The problem, at least in part, is that shad produce far fewer eggs than many other species, such as striped bass, so it can be harder for them to bounce back when their populations are low.

Many of the Chesapeake region’s rivers depend heavily on stocking to make up for that lost reproduction and maintain shad populations. On the James River, Patrick McGrath, a VIMS biologist who works on its annual shad survey, said their data suggest that the strength of the spawning run is closely tied to the number of hatchery fish released five or six years earlier.

That connection could bode poorly for the future, as Virginia last year stopped funding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rear shad for release in its rivers. Officials cited costs and concerns that many shad are being harvested as bycatch in the ocean by fisheries targeting other species, something that has been a concern of many shad biologists.