A record number of spawning American shad returned to the Susquehanna this year-the strongest sign yet that the two-decade restoration effort on the river is beginning to pay off.

The 103,945 fish that returned to the Conowingo Dam near the river's mouth was an increase of almost 70 percent above the 61,550 counted in 1995, the previous best year.

The river was once the largest East Coast spawning ground for the fish, offering hundreds of miles of habitat, but it has been shut off for most of this century by a series of hydroelectric dams.

While it was a record-shattering year on the Susquehanna, shad restoration efforts also continued at a rapid pace throughout the Bay watershed.

More than 21 million shad were stocked in rivers around the Chesapeake, and officials in Virginia announced plans for a fish passage at the last major dam on the James River. Officials were also hopeful that the only remaining blockage on the Potomac River would have a passage by next spring's spawning run.

The migratory fish, which spawns in freshwater rivers but spends most of its life swimming along the Atlantic Coast, was once the most valuable species in the Bay. But as a result of overfishing, pollution, and the construction of dams and other blockages that closed their historic spawning grounds, the shad population plummeted.

Maryland closed it portion of the Bay to shad fishing in 1980, the Potomac River was closed in 1989 and Virginia followed suit in 1994.

This year's biggest news-after the record surge of shad on the Susquehanna -was that returning fish on that river were no longer taken from the water at Conowingo and trucked north around three more dams before being put back in.

With the opening of fish passages at two upstream dams, Holtwood and Safe Harbor, the fish lift completed at the Conowingo Dam in 1991 was used for the first time to pass fish over the 100-foot-high structure so they could swim upstream on their own.

The Conowingo lift had not been used to pass fish before because biologists felt the river between it and the next upstream dam-Holtwood-offered little suitable spawning habitat.

Of the 90,971 fish passed over the Conowingo Dam, 31 percent went over the Holtwood Dam, and 74 percent of those were passed over the Safe Harbor dam.

The remaining 12,000 Conowingo shad were trucked farther north and released to maintain a spawning stock upstream until a fish ladder is completed at the last dam on the river-York Haven-in 2000. In addition to the shad, a record 374,000 blueback herring passed Conowingo.

"It's just basically good news," said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "When I think back to 1984, which is only 13 years ago, the total catch of shad at Conowingo was 167 fish, and that was the year we were negotiating the agreement to put up utility money to build the stock. I think we did real good with their money."

The utilities that own the dams have funded a stocking effort since 1976 at a hatchery owned by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission on the Juniata River. They agreed to build the fish lifts after negotiations with state and federal agencies.

As part of the agreement, the utilities have built the largest fish lifts operating in North America on the Susquehanna. The goal is to ultimately move 2 million fish a year beyond all four dams.

"Over the last 20 years, the utilities have combined to invest more than $50 million in the American shad restoration effort," Marshall Kaiser, president and chief executive officer of the Safe Harbor Water Power Corp., said at a dedication ceremony for the fish lifts in late May. "This program is a shining example of what the public and private sector can do if we work together. We are well on our way to the day when the Susquehanna will be completely open to the American shad."

Conowingo is owned by the PECO Energy Co, Holtwood by Pennsylvania Power & Light Co., Safe Harbor by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and PP&L, while the upstream York Haven Dam is owned by GPU GENCO.

Meanwhile, the pace of shad restoration activities in other Bay tributaries is also stepping up.

The City of Richmond recently announced that it has signed a contract with a construction company to build a vertical slot fish passage at Boshers Dam, the last major obstacle to migrating shad on the James River.

The structure will allow shad and river herring to reach historic spawning grounds which have been out-of-reach since 1803. Construction was to begin by the end of June and be completed by the end of the year, allowing fish to swim all the way to Lynchburg.

A combination of federal, state and local governments, along with several foundations, corporations, fishing and hunting groups, conservation organizations and individuals, provided more than $1.4 million to cover the project's design and construction cost.

"This is an unprecedented example of support from the public and private sectors to provide an important habitat restoration project for species that areimportant economically, as well as ecologically, to Virginia," said William Woodfin, executive director of the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

A study by the department and the National Marine Fisheries Service estimated that the value of restoring recreational and commercial shad and river herring fisheries on the James was $5 million to $7 million a year.

The state this year stocked 7.2 million hatchery-reared shad, with 75 percent of the eggs going to rebuild the James River population, and 25 percent going to maintain the stock in the Pamunkey River, from which the eggs were taken.

The stocking effort, which dates to 1992, is a cooperative effort between DGIF, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the USF&WS, watermen and the Pamunkey Indians.

The Pamunkey Indians, who have operated a shad hatchery at their reservation since the turn of the century, stocked an additional 2.5 million to 3 million. "I'm sure their hatchery contributions have been a big reason for that river continuously producing fish," said Tom Gunter, of the DGIF.

The Bay Program recently announced that it was making a $90,000 grant so the Pamunkeys can improve their hatchery and "mark" the shad reared there with tetracycline.

When they begin next year, all hatchery-reared shad in the Chesapeake will bear a slightly different tetracycline tag.

That will allow biologist sampling returning fish in future years to determine which hatchery the fish came from, how many of the fish that return to spawn originated in hatcheries and how many are "wild."

On the Potomac River, in an effort coordinated by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, the USF&WS stocked 1.5 million shad just below the Great Falls in anticipation of the opening of a fish passage at the Little Falls Dam 10 miles downstream. Officials are hoping that the construction on the passage will begin this year and be completed by next spring's shad run.

It was the third year of stocking on the Potomac, which is supported by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

In Maryland, the state DNR stocked a total of 3.6 million shad in the Patapsco, Patuxent and Choptank rivers. Several hundred thousand additional shad were being reared to a larger size to be released later in the year.

In addition, the state stocked a total of 13 million hickory shad in the three rivers. Maryland began stocking shad to rebuild fisheries in those rivers in 1993.

And in the basin, where the stocking program dates to 1976, officials expected to stock about 10 million larvae this year.