Shad in the Chesapeake

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By John Page Williams
Published in the Summer 2009 issue of Save The Bay magazine

Anthropologists say it's difficult for us to look more than three generations ahead or three generations back in our history. Don't tell that to people in Pennsylvania's Upper Susquehanna
River Valley. Even though American and hickory shad (Alosa sapidissima and A. mediocris, respectively) have been absent from their waterways for more than a century, anglers and scientists are attentively watching the programs designed to restore the fishes' springtime spawning runs. In anticipation of that return, some are driving down to Conowingo Dam, near the mouth of the river, to re-connect with the two beautiful, powerful, tasty shad species by fishing for them with hook and line.

The same is true for residents of Maryland and Virginia. With numerous sites in both states welcoming springtime runs, and shad festivals on the James and the Nanticoke celebrating the fishes' arrival, shad fishing has once again become a Chesapeake rite of spring. 

Even so, all shad fishing is still catch-and-release, except for a small harvest of hickories in Virginia. Our scientists' best estimate is that the Bay's spawning stock is about nine percent of what it was four hundred years ago. The shad served at festivals and sold in area fish markets have come from other rivers like Georgia's Altamaha and New Jersey's Delaware. As usual, the Chesapeake is giving us a mixed message.

To understand what's going on, it's useful to understand the biology and ecology of the fish. American and hickory shad are large members of the herring family that feed on tiny crustaceans such as copepods. They do so by swimming constantly, opening and closing their funnel-shaped mouths so that the filaments of their long gill-rakers filter food from the water. Why they strike lures on their spawning runs is still a mystery. Their bodies are streamlined, and their large, deeply forked tails give them great leverage to keep moving. They travel in huge schools numbering thousands of individual fish. Through the year, American shad range between the Bay of Fundy in summer and northern Florida in the winter. In spring, the mature fish (three to seven years old) scatter into the mouths of their natal rivers, following amazingly acute olfactory (smell and taste) cues embedded in their memories. 

How far upriver did they once go? All the way to Binghamton, New York, on the Susquehanna (over 500 river miles from the Atlantic); well past Lynchburg, Virginia, on the James (over 200 miles); and all over the Rappahannock/Rapidan River watershed in central Virginia between the river's fall line and the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Great Falls stopped them on the Potomac, but the river between the present site of Washington, D.C., and Great Falls offered them plenty of spawning habitat. 

American Indians helped English settlers learn to catch shad in the 17th century, and farmers up the rivers caught them to pack salted in barrels for home consumption. Planters like George Washington at Mount Vernon operated commercial fisheries for them each spring. In fact, until the 1930s, the American shad was the most valuable commercial fish species in the Chesapeake.
The run in the Susquehanna included up to four million fish, with around two million in the Potomac, one million in the James, and hundreds of thousands in the smaller rivers.

Today, despite the best restoration efforts of state natural resource agencies, progress in shad restoration has stalled. The score for shad in CBF's 2008 State of the Bay Report actually fell a point, earning the fish a grade of "F" for the eleventh straight year. Stocks of American shad have recently slid backward in all but the Potomac, which was flat last year.
Hickories are rebounding naturally, though slowly. Right now, these smaller shad offer Chesapeake residents the best opportunity for person-to-fish encounters.

What happened? The answers are not difficult to find, and as usual, they all point back to us. One of the greatest problems has been the loss of spawning habitat because of dams. Dams for canal systems began to block spawning rivers as early as 1839 on the Susquehanna and shortly after on the James. The final insult was construction of Conowingo Dam in 1928, which cut the Susquehanna's several thousand miles of spawning streams down to ten. Meanwhile, commercial fisheries caught shad at unsustainable rates, while factory and sewage pollution degraded shad habitat.

Restoring the runs of these fish, which literally connected the Chesapeake's longest rivers to the Bay and the Atlantic, has been a priority since the original Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 1983. Fishways have opened the James to Lynchburg; removal of the Embrey Dam in 2005 has reopened the entire Rappahannock/Rapidan system; and a combination of lifts and fishways has opened much of the mainstem Susquehanna, though several of the dams still kill unacceptably high numbers of spawners and juvenile shad heading back downstream. The most recent victory for the fish was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' denial of a permit for the King William Reservoir, which would have badly damaged the shad stock in the Mattaponi.

It took two centuries of dam construction, overfishing, and pollution to drive Chesapeake shad stocks to the current low point. We shouldn't expect restoration to be quick or easy. At the same time, however, we shouldn't lose hope. These fish embody the renewal that spring brings to the Bay Country. We need them back.

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Shad Facts

DESCRIPTION: American and hickory shad are large members of the herring family that feed on tiny crustaceans. Large, deeply forked tails propel them through the water. American shad grow from 20 to 28 inches, while the smaller hickories reach 16 to 22 inches.

HABITAT: Both species live in the Atlantic, but in spring, mature fish move into the rivers where they were born. Scientists refer to fish like these as anadromous, meaning that they live most of their lives in salt water but swim upriver into fresh water to spawn. Other examples include striped bass (rockfish) and salmon.

HISTORY: Until the 1930s, the American shad was the most valuable commercial fish in the Chesapeake, with runs numbering in the millions. Chesapeake shad stocks began a gradual decline beginning in the late 19th century, then crashed in the 1970s. One of the greatest problems has been the loss of spawning habitat because dams have closed off rivers.

RESTORATION: Major shad restoration programs began in the 1980s. The installation of fishways and the removal of dams have helped shad return to some rivers. However, shad numbers remain low enough that they earned an "F" in CBF's 2008 State of the Bay report.

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