For decades, fish in Howard and other Maryland counties didn't have a fighting chance. Salt-water (or "anadromous") species, such as striped bass, shad, herring and perch, were kept from doing what comes naturally -- traveling upstream to their fresh-water spawning grounds -- by dams along Maryland's rivers.
Designed to harness power and develop water reserves, the dams were built throughout the early 1900s. They did the job for the human population. For the fish, things didn't go so swimmingly.
Because of the dams, many species dwindled in the Patapsco, the Patuxent and other rivers, to the dismay of environmentalists and fishermen.
The situation was made worse by increased levels of pollution. Even if the fish could have reached the spawning areas, they probably wouldn't have survived the oxygen-poor waters they'd find there.
However, the past 10 to 15 years have brought dramatic improvements and hopes of a major fish comeback in regional rivers. First came successful efforts to make local water bodies cleaner than they had been in many years. Then the state's Department of Natural Resources saw its way clear to direct fish to fresh-water areas.
Since 1990, DNR has installed 14 "fish passages" at dams that had prevented the anadromous species from spawning. Another four passages are due for completion by the end of this year.
The types of passages in this praiseworthy program include a staircase-like device that allows fish a gradual path up and over a dam; an elevator to carry them up; and a breach in the dam that lets fish swim through to the other side.
In Howard County, passages have been completed on the Deep Creek, Bloede, Simkins, Union and Daniels dams along the Patapsco. The only other Maryland counties to receive as much attention in the project are Anne Arundel and Cecil.
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," he 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."