Mother Nature provided perfect conditions this spring for a spectacular run of American shad on Virginia's Pamunkey River -- a run that will likely result in a record-setting number of shad fry released into the James and Pamunkey rivers by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF).
April's warm water and weather -- combined with a smooth-running egg collection program -- resulted in a tremendous number of shad eggs collected, raised and released by VDGIF. By April 24, almost 3.7 million young shad had been placed into the James and Pamunkey rivers. But the numbers don't stop there. According to VDGIF, there were another 500,000 fry waiting to be stocked and almost 1.9 million more shad eggs developing in the King and Queen Fish Cultural Station and the Harrison Lake Hatchery as of that date.
"It's been a bumper crop year," said Price Smith, VDGIF's supervising fisheries biologist and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Program's Fish Passage Workgroup. "We only have two years to compare it to, but it's been an exponential increase."
Restocking of anadromous fish, those that spend most of their lives at sea but return to rivers to spawn, is a hands-on Bay restoration project with tremendous potential to rebuild populations which in some cases - such as shad - have been near historic lows in the past decade. Each Bay jurisdiction has efforts under way to restock native species. Those efforts are running concurrently with the Bay Program's efforts to open up more historic fish spawning habitat through construction of fish passages. The Bay Program is spending $2.5 million to open 583 miles of fish passage by 1998, and plans to open a total of a total of 1,356 miles by 2003.
Fish restoration efforts, such as VDGIF's shad program, are designed to ensure that there are healthy populations of fish available to head upstream and through the new fish passages -- whether they are a notch, an elevator, a pool and weir, or a denil fishway -- each spring to spawn. Fish passage projects are under way in each state. The largest in Virginia is at Bosher's Dam in Richmond, which is scheduled to be completed this fall. Once open, Bosher's will provide access to more than 134 miles of spawning habitat. It has been estimated that the economic benefit of opening Bosher's Dam fish passage and restoring the historic fishery will be between $5 million and $7 million annually. But, as Patti Jackson, executive director of the Lower James River Association pointed out, " ... the fish have to be there to use it when it opens."
All of the shad fry released by the state of Virginia this year come from the VDGIF's shad egg collection program on the Pamunkey River. Coordinated by VDGIF's Tom Gunter, the collection began in early April when the shad run kicked off. The collection process has been perfected over the last two years and this year it ran like clockwork. The first, vital step was recruiting the 10 watermen who worked with VDGIF officials. Experience counted as the watermen deftly set gill nets across the Pamunkey River each day to catch some of the shad swarming upstream to spawn. Once caught, the big, silvery shad were brought to VDGIF's egg collection station on shore where they were "stripped" carefully for their eggs and sperm. The "station" consisted of a long table set on the back of a boat trailer, three big blue plastic tubs, and a couple of silver mixing bowls -- the kind chef Julia Childs favors.
Once the eggs were collected and fertilized, they were bathed with river water and put aside. After only an hour, the eggs had grown to about 10 times their original size and had taken on the appearance of diamonds. Each day, when the egg collection wrapped up, the eggs were packed up in plastic bags, sealed, and driven -- very carefully -- to the King and Queen Fish Cultural Station, where they were hatched and raised by Hatchery Manager Chris Dahlam along with fish culturalists Mike Vest and Ken Webb. When the King and Queen Station reached its capacity for shad eggs and fry, the state turned to Albert Spells and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Harrison Lake Hatchery outside of Richmond, for help.
The fry did not stay at the hatchery long enough to get comfortable. Exactly seven days after hatching, the fry were trucked back to the river and released. The newly released shad carry a unique tag that is applied at the hatcheries with a solution of tetracycline antibiotics. All of the fish hatcheries in the Bay region use this system to mark the "otoliths" or ear bones of hatchlings. The mark is applied by immersing the young fish in a tetracycline solution which is absorbed into the ear bone -- the only true bone present in the fish at that age. Later, researchers can use these marks to determine the stocking site, hatchery, the river the eggs were obtained from and the age at stocking. Analysis of the markings permit fine-tuning of the restoration effort.
Although the shad have stolen the spotlight this year, the blueback herring has not disappointed either. In keeping with local lore, Virginia's blueback run began just as the pink and yellow dogwood trees were reaching their peak during the first week in April. According to Smith, the blueback were running steadily, but VDGIF officials were not seeing the "mob scene" of herring they witnessed over the last two years. The near-drought conditions in the rivers was one reason the fish may not have peaked as quickly this year, said Smith. "The rivers are just not flowing," he said. The run was expected to last three to four weeks.