CONOWINGO — Conowingo. -- It's no secret that the water of the Susquehanna below the big hydroelectric dam here is full of fish this spring. The bald eagles know it, the gulls and herons know it, and the wader-clad people with spinning rods lining the riverbank know it too.
Among the fish down in that fast-moving water, trying to make their way upstream, are American shad -- or automotive shad, as they should perhaps be called. Some will reach their destination, as 27,000 did last year, after completing their journey by truck. The shad, and their unusual mode of transportation, continue to be a subject of some controversy in natural-resources circles.
Two hundred years ago, by the millions, shad would ascend the Susquehanna all the way to New York, to Binghamton and almost to Cooperstown, to spawn. Netting them, and their cousins the herring, was a springtime ritual. There seemed no limits to nature's richness then. The fish came up the river, just about the time the shadbush bloomed white in the woods, as though pouring from an inexhaustible cornucopia.
In 1810, working on Snake Island in the river near here, Benjamine Silver and his crew netted and packed 1,600 barrels of herring. A century later, the run was much reduced, but still substantial. Hughes Spencer of Havre de Grace, who died in 1982, remembered working with his father as a boy in the early 1900s, hauling huge seine nets holding perhaps half a million fish.
American shad no longer flourish in the Susquehanna, and fishing for them is prohibited in Maryland. There are various reasons for their decline, but the major ones are all too obvious. They are the big dams, of which Conowingo is the southernmost and largest, which block their migration. The dam at Conowingo was completed in 1928.
The dam is operated, under license from the federal government, by the Philadelphia Electric Company. For years, the utility condescendingly ignored those who said it should do something to help the shad. But it has had a gradual change of heart, responded to its critics, invested a good many millions of dollars and begun to produce some interesting results.
In the early 1970s, it put in equipment to live-trap fish congregating at the foot of the dam and hoist them out for sorting. The American shad were put in tanks and trucked upstream, bypassing the three other dams beyond Conowingo. Before 1980, the number of fish so transported averaged less than 200 per year.
Presumably, these trucked fish spawn upriver, and their offspring, "imprinted" by the unmistakable chemistry of the streams of their birth, make their way down through the dams and turbines -- studies show most survive that harrowing trip -- to the Chesapeake and eventually the sea. Then when their own turn comes to spawn, they instinctively turn homeward.
The process must be working, because there are certainly more shad, though the 27,000 trucked in 1991 are still well below the 2 or 3 million biologists say would indicate a healthy spawning run and a species able to withstand recreational fishing.
It is not absolutely clear what the next step is to be or how it should be scheduled. Some form of shad-passage facilities like those at Conowingo must be built at the upstream dams -- Holtwood, Safe Harbor and York Haven. Complex discussions, involving Philadelphia Electric and other upstream utilities, state and federal governments and conservation groups, still continue.
But an important principle has been established. Private, corporate funds are being used, with governmental HTC encouragement, for conservation purposes in the broad public interest. If the American shad is ever to be re-established on the Susquehanna River, this is how it will be accomplished.
There is a lesson here for all who care about conservation, but it is a lesson commonly ignored.
People who lobby for environmental causes tend to say that once goals are identified, government should act to accomplish them. If it takes money, government should spend it. If it takes mandates, government should issue them. But that doesn't work well any more.
There isn't enough government money, and there isn't enough public support for governmental mandates that someone else foot the bill. Thus, in Maryland, the failure of growth-control measures to protect the Chesapeake watershed. Thus the rising support for property-rights legislation to require compensation for certain land-use regulations. Thus the new resistance to ever-rising taxes.
Major conservation goals are achievable, but they have a cost. That's why it's so important that conservationists, government and industry stop their Pavlovian yapping at each other and start finding where their diverse interests coincide. That's why, to take one recent hot-button issue, it's shortsighted for Chesapeake-area environmental groups to go bananas because Texaco wants to look for oil and gas here.
Overdevelopment is a far more serious threat to the bay than Texaco's wells. And how much better it would be for the future of the bay if Texaco's financial support for conservation could be locked in now -- if the company, say, were to agree to dedicate a portion of future revenues for the purchase of conservation easements on vast tracts of fragile bay frontage. Private money can do such things. Public money, at least right now, can't.
When it comes to conservation, big corporations may be slow to see the light, but they eventually realize it pays. Even hardnosed Philadelphia Electric now sees the many millions of dollars it has spent to help restore the American shad to the Susquehanna as an investment, not a shakedown. And without those dollars, the shad wouldn't have even a fighting chance.