The campaign to restore depleted shad stocks hit a new milestone this year as a record 36 million young fish were stocked in Bay tributaries.
There was also fresh evidence that stock rebuilding efforts were paying off: Strong spawning runs were reported throughout the watershed.
And the shad restoration program truly became Baywide as the state of Delaware joined Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Native Americans, nonprofit groups, local governments and others in the effort.
Delaware this year stocked about 91,000 hatchery-reared shad in its portion of the Nanticoke — a river that once ranked third among all Chesapeake tributaries in terms of shad caught annually.
At its peak in 1896, the Nanticoke produced 800,000 pounds of shad, 27 percent of which were caught in Delaware. By 1992, the average catch dropped to 440 pounds a year.
Shad, once the Bay’s most valuable commercial species, are anadromous fish, spending most of their life migrating along the Atlantic Coast, but returning to their natal stream — starting at about age 4 — to spawn. Because shad historically swam hundreds of miles up the Bay’s tributary rivers, they are viewed as a species that links Chesapeake restoration efforts with citizens living throughout the watershed.
Shad restoration efforts have focused on stocking shad in tributaries; constructing fish passages at dams and other barriers to migration that have closed historic spawning grounds; improving water quality; and restricting fishing pressure.
This year, Delaware not only began stocking shad, but also joined other Bay jurisdictions in banning their harvest, making the Bay moratorium complete. Maryland banned Bay shad fishing in 1980, the Potomac was closed in 1982, and Virginia closed its portion of the Bay in 1994.
In addition, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages fish that migrate across state lines, has begun a five-year phase-out of ocean shad harvests. Some scientists have worried that efforts to rebuild river stocks were being hampered by the catch of shad migrating along the coast.
By the time the Bay closures were in place, though, the shad were practically wiped out in major rivers. In 1979, only 50 shad returned to the Susquehanna, where populations once numbered in the millions. In other rivers throughout the Bay, American shad vanished altogether, or were rare.
“In the James River, populations of American shad — in a biological sense — were so low in the early 1990s that they were already ecologically irrelevant in the system,” said Greg Garman, who heads the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Environmental Studies. “I think we kind of jumped in there just in the nick of time.”
Jumping in has meant rearing tens of millions of young shad, called “fry,” at hatcheries, and then releasing them in rivers to rebuild the population.
Hatchery efforts date to the early 1900s, when the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes used hatcheries to replace shad they harvested from tributaries to the York River — a river which has consistently maintained healthy shad runs.
Building on techniques learned from the Native American hatcheries, the Pennsyl-vania Fish and Boat Commission in 1976 began releasing millions of fry from a hatchery on the Juniata River, a tributary in the Susquehanna.
In the past decade, stocking efforts have started in Maryland and Virginia rivers, as well as in the Potomac, often in conjunction with the construction of fish passages at dams. By stocking fish in upstream areas that have been closed to migration for decades, biologists hope the fish will return to those areas to spawn when they are 4 to 5 years old.
This year’s strong runs seem to indicate the practice is working. “We had a pretty good run on the Potomac River,” said Jim Cummins, a biologist with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. “The recreational anglers down in the District of Columbia were reporting the best run in decades.”
Maryland officials reported that American shad were showing signs of rebounding in the Patuxent and Choptank rivers, where they have focused their stocking efforts in the past four years.
On the Susquehanna, 153,546 shad passed over the Conowingo Dam, the highest number since restoration efforts began on that river in the 1970s.
And on the James, Garman said this year was “shaping up to be one of the best” in the past decade.
Maryland officials also pointed to their success at stocking hickory shad as a hopeful sign for American shad. Hickory shad can mature in only two years, and officials report efforts seem to be paying off with strong runs this year. “During April and May, we routinely saw thousands of fish on the spawning grounds during our once-a-week electrofishing survey,” said Steve Minkkinen, Maryland DNR. “These correspond to large-scale stocking efforts beginning three years ago.”
Both the Patuxent and Choptank, he said, may be ready to support a catch-and-release fishery for hickory shad. This year, the state stocked 20 million hickory shad.
On the fish passage front, the completion of a fish ladder at the York Haven dam in Pennsylvania reopened most of the Susquehanna — historically the shad’s largest East Coast spawning ground — for the first time in a century. Last year, a fish passage at Boshers Dam on the James River near Richmond reopened most of that river for the first time in a century-and-a-half.
Altogether, about 1,100 miles of river have been reopened. The Bay Program goal is 1,357 miles by 2003.
Planning is under way for a fish passage at the Abutment Dam on the Appomattox River in Virginia. And plans are being developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove — not just build a fish passage — Embrey Dam near Fredericksburg, VA. That would make the Rappahannock the only totally free-flowing river all the way from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Bay.
“It will be pretty much unprecedented for a river of that length to link all of these ecosystems from the mountains to the Bay,” Garman said. “It’s moving in the right direction, I think.”
Making Stock in the Chesapeake
A host of participants — from federal, state and local government agencies to nonprofit groups, schools and Native Americans — stock shad around the Bay. Here’s a breakdown of the numbers of American shad they stocked in 2000:
- 9.46 million were stocked in the Susquehanna
- 8.74 million in the Pamunkey River
- 7.75 million in the James River
- 4.5 million in the Mattaponi River
- 3.1 million in the Potomac River
- 1.16 million in the Chickahominy River
- 360,000 in the Choptank River
- 350,000 in the Patuxent River
- 120,000 in the Nanticoke River