When Jack Morningstar was a child, his grandmother used to tell him stories about how, in the late 1800s, she would catch shad in the canals that lined the Susquehanna River.
Sometimes, her family — which often didn’t have much money — would eat the fish for three meals in a single day.
But Morningstar never caught a shad; they were gone by the time he was born. Although he grew up along the river, and taught his children and grandchildren how to canoe and fish in its waters, shad was always a thing of the past.
That changed on June 1. As he stood in front of a viewing window at the York Haven Dam, just a few miles south of Harrisburg, PA, Morningstar watched shad fight the current as they headed upstream through a new fish ladder to spawn.
“It makes me feel like a little kid again,” said Morningstar, a retired employee of GPU, the utility that owns the dam and paid for the fish ladder. “Here I am, watching the fish go up the river — through the window — and that’s what my grandmother used to do all the time.”
The York Haven fish ladder was the fourth, and final, fish passage completed in the past decade at four huge Susquehanna dams. When it went into operation this year, it was the first time in nearly a century that shad could freely return to most of the Susquehanna basin, historically their largest spawning ground on the East Coast.
“This is a time of great pride for all of us — a milestone we can truly call historic,” Peter Colangelo, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said at a June 1 dedication for the passage.
The York Haven fish passage culminates efforts — dating back to at least 1866 — to reopen the Chesapeake’s largest tributary to migratory fish.
Stories abound of the huge numbers of fish once caught near the mouth of the Susquehanna and throughout its basin during the 1700s and early 1800s. In 1827, 15 million shad were captured in a single seine net strung across the mouth of the river for four days, according to Susan Q. Stranahan’s book, “Susquehanna: River of Dreams.”
Shad were an important species to settlers because they were among the first migratory fish to swim upstream in the spring, often alleviating starvation.
By the 1700s, though, mill dams were blocking some of the river’s tributaries. Migrations to most of the basin came to a halt in 1840 when a dam was built at Columbia — about 40 miles upstream from the Bay — so canal boats could cross the river.
Immediately after the Civil War, in 1866, the Pennsylvania legislature dedicated a full-time position aimed at restoring shad to the Susquehanna — a job later inherited by the Pennsylvania Fish Commission, which was created in 1873.
Those efforts had some short-lived successes: Fish passages built at the Columbia dam allowed shad to get upstream. Encouraged, the restoration effort was soon boosted by a fish hatchery on the Juniata River, a Susquehanna tributary. By the end of the century, hundreds of thousands of pounds of shad were being caught in Pennsylvania.
But not for long. In 1904, the York Haven Water and Power Company completed a 26-foot-high dam 55 miles upstream from the river’s mouth, slamming shut most of the 444-mile-long Susquehanna. At the time, York Haven was the third largest hydroelectric dam in the world. Soon, though, it was dwarfed by three larger dams downstream. Ground was broken on the largest — the 95-foot-high Conowingo Dam, just 10 miles upstream of the river’s mouth — in 1926.
Little changed until the 1950s and 1960s when, stimulated by a successful shad passage at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River in Washington, a new phase of fish restoration activity began on the Susquehanna.
A series of new studies concluded that successful fish passages could be developed for the Susquehanna dams, and that upstream water quality was adequate to support spawning shad in much of the river.
In the 1970s, a new hatchery program began. Eggs from shad caught in other rivers were reared at a state hatchery on the Juniata. Millions of shad were released each year, in an effort to “imprint” the Susquehanna on the fish so they would someday return and spawn.
As the number of shad coming back to the river grew during the 1980s, pressure increased for fish passages at the dams. While York Haven needed only a fish ladder, the larger downstream dams needed “fish lifts” — mechanical elevators — to carry the shad over them. The Conowingo lift was completed in 1991, followed by Holtwood and Safe Harbor in 1997.
Nowhere on the East Coast do shad have to pass so many large dams to get upstream. The number of migrating shad declines at each upstream dam.
Bob Wise, president of the York Haven Power Company, a GPU subsidiary, admitted he was wary of hosting a fish passage ceremony. “What if we put the ladder in and the fish don’t like it?” he asked.
To his relief, that didn’t happen. The fish did reach York Haven, and swam past the viewing window where Morningstar and official fish counters could watch them and tally numbers. “Even as I speak,” Wise said at the dedication, “there are fish going through the ladder.”
Still, there is a lot of work ahead. This year, 153,546 shad were lifted past the Conowingo — the most since restoration efforts began — and 4,673 swam past York Haven. But the goal is to have 3 million pass Conowingo and to get 2 million past York Haven by 2025.
What we’re seeing over the last 20 years or so is a tripling of the population about every four years,” said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If we go at that rate, we’ll certainly get to the goal in time.”
Numbers aren’t the only problem. While water quality has improved, it still has a way to go. “If you look today, in many cases you can barely see the fish for all the sediment in the water,” said Brad Campbell, Region III EPA administrator, at the fish passage dedication. “We need clean water as well as clear passage.”
The effort has not been cheap. The York Haven fish ladder cost $9 million. Altogether, the utilities that own the four dams have spent about $70 million on the Susquehanna river fish restoration program. By comparison, the original price of just the Conowingo Dam was $59 million.
“It’s a lot more expensive to undo the impact of past projects than to do them in a way to protect the environment up front,” Campbell noted.
While the price tag is high, it has been worth it, according to Morningstar, who remains a stockholder in the company. “That is money well spent,” he said on his way out. “I approve.”