Greed, Not Wrong Turn, Erased Shad

ON THE BAY

April 03, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Can fish just get lost; hang a wrong turn migrating to the bay and never show up?

The late Irving Crouch of Rock Hall, who fished the Chesapeake for 70 years, could recall a year in the 1920s when he fished hard all winter for striped bass and caught exactly one. This was a fisherman who used miles of net and ranged the whole bay. The years before and after that, his catches were measured by tons.

John Edward Goslee, a boat builder and fisherman on the Eastern Shore, thinks the bay's hardhead, or croaker, once ended up on the wrong side of the Atlantic ocean.

He was camped on a British beach, awaiting the invasion of Normandy during World War II. Relatives back home had written how the hardheads, a staple of bay fishing, had been strangely scarce. One day the English fishermen came back to port, holds brimful of a fish they couldn't even sell. No one there had seen its like. Mr. Goslee and some friends knew immediately: The fish were hardheads, and soon the smells of a fish fry wafted across the beach where the Americans were massed.

Such fish stories come to mind this time of year, because now is when alosa sappidissima, the "most superlatively tasty alosa," or American shad, should be making their way into bay rivers to spawn by the millions.

Their fine-textured roe alone, or their sweet, firm flesh, would have made them prize enough for both commercial and sport fTC fishermen. Together, these qualities ranked the shad above even soft-shell crabs as a seasonal delicacy.

Not only was the fish consummately edible, it was a great fighter -- and eminently accessible. Running far up bay rivers to the narrows, shad brought an energy from the oceans within reach of anyone who could manage a rowboat, or cast from a shore or a bridge. To hook one from a quiet spot on your favorite river, beneath greening willows and blooming dogwoods, was as good as spring in Maryland could get for many of us.

The fact that you cannot do this anymore, that a generation is growing up without even the memory of it, is a tragedy -- made harder to accept by the fact that the shad continues to flourish nearly everywhere but our bay. The Hudson, the Connecticut, even the Delaware; these and other East Coast river systems continue to support robust shad runs.

No wrong turn or mysterious disappearance can account for the singular drought of Chesapeake shad. Rather, fishermen's greed and shortsightedness, fully endorsed by state officials, explain it.

Shad harvests in Maryland were around 2 million pounds annually as recently as the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s, state biologists repeatedly warned that shad were not reproducing well anymore. But the scientists were ignored until 1979, when commercial landings fell to 1 percent of 1960s levels. Still, nothing was done until the threat of a sport fisherman's lawsuit prompted the state to close the shad season -- a closure now in its 14th spring.

Looking back, one is struck at how little money was made by nearly extinguishing the shad. For a harvest of nearly 600,000 pounds in 1973, commercial netters got barely $100,000; in 1979 the statewide shad fishery made exactly $8,024.

Why, after 14 years of protection in Maryland haven't the shad come back? Striped bass, after a similar closure of fishing during the 1980s, rebounded handsomely.

The only hopeful trend with shad is where the Susquehanna River enters the upper bay, an area that historically was the greatest of the species' nurseries. Since 1984 the Susquehanna has been the object of a major restocking effort. Small shad are raised in hatcheries and released. Like salmon, they "imprint" to the rivers of their birth and return as adults to spawn.

Biologists estimate returning shad in the upper bay have risen from about 25,000 in 1986 to more than 100,000. This modest success is tempered by the fact that much of the comeback continues to depend on hatcheries, though some natural reproduction is occurring; and numbers remain far too low to re-open even a minimal fishery.

Meanwhile, on the Nanticoke, Pocomoke, Potomac, Patuxent and other former great rivers for shad, the species remains barely detectable, even where water quality is good.

Why? Biologists say that in any wild species, natural environmental variables like weather, predators and food supply can cause substantial dips in population in any given year. A healthy population easily rebounds; but numbers can get pushed so low that, even though actual extinction is not a threat, a return to health is no longer possible.

With the striped bass, we stopped in time; but with the shad, we apparently pushed it below some critical mass from which it cannot regenerate.

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