Something fishy's going on

November 11, 1992

Through much of this century, dams designed to harness power and develop water reserves were built along Maryland's rivers. While the dams did their work superbly for the human population, they prevented salt-water (or "anadromous") species such as striped bass, shad, herring and perch from swimming upstream to their fresh-water spawning grounds.

In fact, the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates that nearly 100 existing structures have been keeping the anadromous fish from doing what comes naturally.

Because of these barriers, many fish species dwindled in the Patapsco, the Patuxent and other rivers, to the consternation of environmentalists and fishermen.

Increasing levels of pollution worsened the situation. Even if the fish could have reached the spawning areas, they probably wouldn't have survived the oxygen-poor waters they'd find there.

The past 10 to 15 years, however, have brought dramatic improvements and hopes of a major fish comeback in regional rivers.

First came successful efforts to make local waters cleaner than they'd been in years. Then DNR saw its way clear to direct fish to fresh-water areas.

During the last two years, the department has installed 14 "fish passages" at dams that had kept the anadromous species from spawning. Four more passages are due for completion by the end of 1992.

Among the types of passages in this praiseworthy program are a staircase-like device that allows fish a gradual path up and over a dam; an elevator to carry them up; and a breach, or hole, in the dam that lets fish swim through to the other side.

Most of the passages have been installed at dams between Baltimore and Washington, though DNR has spread the projects among counties throughout the state, as far north as Harford and Cecil, as far west as Montgomery and as far east as Queen Anne's.

A key goal of the program, says DNR fisheries official Howard King, is to make better use of the "vast pool of energy" contained in local waters.

"With an increase in certain fish like the herring," Mr. King explains, "a lot of oxygen-depleting algae gets eaten. Those fish then get eaten by striped bass, bluefish and other species that are prized by fishermen. What you get in the long run is healthier water and greater numbers of valuable fish."

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