Fish Get Helping Hand From New Lift At Conowingo

May 12, 1991|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff writer

If you ask Havre de Grace waterman Bob Jobes what he thinks about the new fish lift at the Conowingo Dam he'll tell you it's a good idea,but water quality must be improved before the fish populations really bounce back.

To Jobes, the new $12 million fish lift is only part of the solution to increasing the population of American shad and river herring in the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay.

"I would say its a step in the right direction," the 31-year-old fisherman said. "(The lift) should have been done when the dam was built.

"But environmentally, if the water's not right, you wasted millions of dollars," Jobes said.

Jobes said the quality of the water must be improved by cutting pollutants going into the river and bay and limiting development along the waterway.

Without quality water for aquatic life, Jobes said, fish populations for Philadelphia Electric Co.'s new lift at the Conowingo on the Susquehanna will remainsmall.

The lift, the second and largest of such facilities on theSusquehanna, was unveiled Thursday at the Conowingo Dam near the Pennsylvania border. The first lift, also at the Conowingo Dam, was built in 1972.

The lift is designed to capture American shad and riverherring as they approach the dam. The fish are sorted into tanks andthen transported by truck 50 miles upriver to the York Haven Dam near Harrisburg, Pa., and put back into the Susquehanna.

York Haven historically has been the natural spawning site for shad and herring, but the fish have been unable to reach the area for more than 50 years because of four dams that have been built on the Susquehanna.

Bythe end of the 1990s, environmentalists hope the shad and herring will be able to reach the spawning sites on their own when "fish lifts"are built at the four dams.

"In order to reopen this natural highway, we must remove the obstructions we have placed in less enlightened times," said W. Tayloe Murphy Jr., chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an organization made up of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia officials to establish programs for improving the quality of the bay.

"(The Conowingo lift) represents what can be achieved by the cooperation of the public and private sector," Murphy said during Thursday's dedication ceremony.

Philadelphia Electric Co. was ordered to build the lift in 1980 as part of the federal re-licensing of the Conowingo Dam. The company fought the order in court, but in 1989 signed an agreement to build the facility.

The Conowingo lift, on the Cecil County side of the Susquehanna, is designed to attract fishinto a hopper that is lifted out of the water, Philadelphia Electricspokesman Michael Wood said.

To help the shad and herring find the entrances to the hopper, dam operators have increased the flow of water going into the river near the lift. The fish naturally swim against the flow of moving water, Wood said.

The fish are dumped out of the hopper and into the tank about 30 feet above the Susquehanna, where they are sorted by biologists trained to identify different species, Wood said.

Shad and herring are put in another tank and otherspecies of fish are sent back into the river, Wood said.

The new concrete and steel facility is similar to a fish lift built in 1972 on the Harford County side of the river, Wood said. That lift cost $1.25 million to build.

The new, larger lift is able to transport fish over the dam to water on the north side of the facility so the fishcan continue to swim upstream, Wood said.

But this procedure won't begin until fish lifts are built at the Holtwood, Safe Harbor and York Haven dams in Pennsylvania, Wood said.

Once these lifts are built, the fish will be able to reach spawning sites on their own and will not need to be trucked to the sites, Wood said.

Until then, the lifts at Conowingo will operate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily during the spawning season, Wood said. Crews will make about 15 truck trips a day to the spawning site this season.

Crews already have transported 16,242 shad and herring this season, which runs from early Aprilto mid-June, Wood said.

The lifts will be able to process 750,000shad and 5 million river herring in a spawning season once the fish population increases in the Susquehanna and Chesapeake Bay, Wood said.

Shad and herring once traveled about 300 miles from the lower Chesapeake Bay to the upper Susquehanna River during the annual spring spawning seasons, said Edward R. Miller, director of the PennsylvaniaFish Commission.

However, construction of the Conowingo Dam in 1928 limited the shad and herring to a 10-mile stretch along the lower Susquehanna for spawning, Miller said.

As a result of pollution, the dams and too much fishing, the catch of American shad in Maryland declined to 20,000 pounds in 1980, from 7 million pounds a century ago, according to Philadelphia Electric statistics.

But the shad population in the river and bay is increasing, up to 120,000 today, from4,000 in 1984, said Frank Bracken, deputy secretary of the federal Department of Interior.

Environmental specialists hope the river and bay will eventually be home to 3 million shad and 20 million herring, Bracken said.

Once all four Susquehanna dams are equipped with lifts, the shad and herring populations are expected to increase to apoint where they will available for commercial and sport fishing, Bracken said.

The commercial and sport fishing industries are expected to put as much as $185 million into the economy once the shad and herring are available, Bracken said.

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