Shad swam back to the Susquehanna River in record numbers this year, surpassing the previous high mark which had been set just last year.

Strong shad runs were also reported in Virginia and Maryland, marking a continued turnaround for a troubled species that was once the Bay’s most valuable commercial catch.

On the Susquehanna, a total of 193,574 American shad were passed over the Conowingo Dam during the spring spawning run, up from the previous record of 153,546 last year.

“We didn’t see it coming, it was a pleasant surprise,” said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the past, he noted, strong runs like last year’s are usually followed by poor runs.

He credited ideal spring weather with helping the shad run. “If we could have our way with the river each year, we would ask for this type of a season: a high flow burst in March and early April to bring the fish to the river, and then (it would) calm down and just let them go,” St. Pierre said.

In other areas, the story was much the same. “I think things are really looking up,” said Dale Weinrich, a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Although an estimate for the number of shad in Maryland’s Upper Bay had not been completed, Weinrich said the numbers appear strong.

In a DNR pound net survey, Weinrich said 2,000 shad were caught in a single net. Before this year, he said the most that had been caught was 1,100 shad in three nets during the entire season. “I have never seen the numbers of shad that I’ve seen in the pound nets up there this year,” he said.

On the Potomac, Jim Cummins, a biologist with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, also reported a strong run. “I expect it to meet or exceed last year’s levels, which were really good,” he said.

The success in the Susquehanna is particularly significant because it was historically the largest spawning area for shad on the East Coast. Millions of shad used to return to the river to spawn each year, but for most of the past century, migration was blocked by four large hydroelectric dams.

In 1991, a fish lift was built to carry shad and other migrating fish over the Conowingo Dam — the southernmost of the four dams, located just a dozen miles from the mouth of the river. Other lifts soon followed at the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams upstream, and a fish ladder was completed last year at the final dam, at York Haven, which finally reopened the river.

But nowhere on the East Coast do shad have to pass so many large dams to get upstream. The number of migrating fish declines with each dam. After Conowingo, 109,976 fish were lifted over Holtwood, 89,816 were passed over Safe Harbor, and 16,200 swam past York Haven. Still, that was almost four times the number of shad that passed York Haven last year.

Shad are an anadromous fish, spending most of their lives migrating along the Atlantic Coast, but returning to their natal streams, 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 has focused on stocking hatchery-reared fish in rivers; constructing fish passages at dams and removing other barriers to migration; improving water quality; and restricting fishing pressure.

Progress has been made on all fronts. Rivers are cleaner, shad fishing has been banned throughout the Bay, and the ocean shad fishery is being phased out. About 922 miles of historic spawning habitat has been opened through the construction of fish passages or the removal of blockages. Since 1986, nearly 320 million shad “fry” have been stocked throughout the watershed.

This year, about 31 million larvae were stocked in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania.

The hope is that stocking will build up the population to the point where natural reproduction from returning adults can eventually take over, eliminating the need for hatchery efforts.

With strong shad runs for the second straight year in much of the Bay, some biologists believe that that day may be getting closer. On the Potomac River, surveys looking for signs of reproduction were already finding “good numbers” of young fish, Cummins said.

“I think shad are going to make a quick recovery now,” he predicted.

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 in numbers of American shad they stocked in 2001:

Pennsylvania

  • 5.203 million were stocked in the Susquehanna

Maryland

  • 0.422 million were stocked in the Patuxent
  • 0.040 million were stocked in the Nanticoke
  • 3.378 million were stocked in the Potomac
  • 0.015 million were stocked in the Choptank

In addition, another .554 million shad will be stocked in late summer as advanced fingerlings.

Virginia

  • 9.250 million were stocked in the James
  • 6.060 million were stocked in the Pamunkey
  • 6.000 million were stocked in the Mattaponi

Delaware

  • 0. 049 million were stocked in the Nanticoke