Don't Look Now, But Here Come The Shad


April 12, 1992|By Gary Diamond

In 1980, the Susquehanna River's shad population dipped to an all-time low of 5,500 adult fish, but today things are looking up for the shad.

Current population is estimated at 145,000.

In an attempt to stem the decline, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources enacted a moratorium, prohibiting commercial and recreational harvests of shad in the bay and its tributaries. Although millions of young shad are stocked annually, the effects were not obvious until 1985.

"We're annually stocking 5 million American shad fry below Conowingo Dam and several million are also stocked upstream in the Juniata River," said biologist Richard St. Pierre of U.S. Fish andWildlife Service.

To track fish, they are marked with chemicals detectable only with an ultra-violet light. Last year's catch at Conowingo Dam's fish trap was encouraging, with 27,227 shad captured during 1991. The year before, the service captured only 15,900 fish.

Itwas nearly a half-century ago when programs were first started to restore the Susquehanna's dwindling shad populations. Many local recreational fishermen vividly recall this particular era, citing outstanding fishing from the river's rock strewn shore. It was a time when relatively clear, cold water flowed over Conowingo Dam's spillways, attracting millions of spawning fish. The river below Conowingo Dam swarmed with American shad, hickory shad, blueback herring, branch herring, channel catfish, sturgeon, American eel, rockfish and numerous freshwater species.

Although the demise of the Susquehanna's shad was once thought to be linked with Hurricane Agnes, the destructive stormhad little effect on the population. Biologists now believe the shadpopulation decline resulted from overfishing and loss of upstream spawning grounds.

Prior to federally mandated fisheries management programs, fish were managed by crisis. Essentially, fisheries management was effectively "closing the barn door after the horse escaped."

This was the way now deceased commercial waterman Huges Spencer sawit anyway. As a young man, he worked aboard one of Havre de Grace's floating fish factories.

Spencer began fishing in 1919 when most commercial shad fishing activities were conducted aboard huge barges, or "floats."

Shanties were constructed on-board, housing the 90-man crew.

Wooden and concrete vats installed under deck held the catch. All processing was done on board.

When spring arrived, severalbarges were positioned upstream of Garrett Island, held in place with 600-pound anchors. More than a mile of net was set from the decks of a 65-foot seine boat, rowed by 22 men.

Prior to the invention ofsteam-driven engines, horses and men hauled fish-laden seines aboardthe floats. Spencer said nearly a half-million fish were taken on a good haul and there were times when he feared the barges would sink from the weight of the catch.

Once landed, men wearing hip boots waded knee deep in fish, sorting prized, roe shad from herring and hickory jacks. Back then, shad sold for 10 cents apiece; herring fetched about a penny. The men worked round the clock for nearly a month, resting only when nets were being laid out by seine boats.

Early in 1972, a fish trap was installed at the base of Conowingo Dam by Philadelphia Electric Company. In June of that same year, Hurricane Agnes slammed Maryland's coast with 90-mph winds and torrential rains, raising the Susquehanna's waters 20 feet. The fish trap incurred substantial damage, and its operation came to a halt. Millions of tons of siltburied the aquatic grasses of the Susquehanna Flats, much of Port Deposit and Havre de Grace was inundated. Huge numbers of newly hatchedshad were killed.

Shad has historically been a favorite of recreational fishermen in the area. In the 1960s, Harford and Cecil county shores of the Susquehanna River were lined with fishermen standing three-deep.

Maryland's shad restoration project includes the TurningBasin Pond at Havre de Grace's North Park. The impoundment is stocked with approximately 100,000 shad fry, which are eventually released into the Susquehanna.

According to Maryland's American shad management plan, population levels must increase three years in a row and exceeding 500,000 adult shad before fishing can be allowed.

At thispoint, a limited recreational fishery, possibly catch and release, could be instituted in the near future. At current rates of populationincreases, a catch and release program might open in three to five years, DNR experts estimate.

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