Susquehanna's shad shares are growing


Before the devastating effects of Hurricane Agnes, the waters of the Susquehanna River, Deer Creek and Octoraro Creek teemed with huge numbers of spawning hickory shad.

Granted, the historic storm was responsible for the untimely demise of a small segment of the river's total shad population, but overfishing, pollution and loss of upstream spawning areas nearly caused this popular gamefish to become extinct.

The first hickory shad usually arrive at the mouth of Deer Creek by the second week in April. Despite unusually cold, wet spring weather conditions, the fish arrived right on time, entering the creek last Friday.

Often dubbed as "poor man's tarpon" because of its fighting ability, this particular species bears a strong resemblance to American shad, which is somewhat larger.

In Maryland, shad are under the protective umbrella of the Endangered Species Act, a state mandate providing certain levels of protection, thereby preventing a particular species from becoming extinct.

When shad populations in the Susquehanna River basin dipped to dangerously low levels in the mid-1970s, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources enacted a full moratorium, prohibiting catching, possession or sale of shad caught in Maryland waters.

Similar to striped bass fishing restrictions, a person may not attempt to catch shad for any reason other than to conduct approved scientific studies. A good example of these research programs can be observed by visiting the fish traps and lifts situated at the base of Conowingo Dam.

It's here biologists from federal and state agencies collect thousands of spawning shad, which then are transported upriver to various sites. A significant number of fertile eggs from several East Coast sources are transported to a large hatchery facility where they're hatched. While the young fish are still in the larvae stage, they're marked, then removed from the hatchery and transported to several major Susquehanna River tributaries where they're released.

"Approximately 10 [million] to 12 million fry are fed with a substance absorbed by their bones, making it easy for us to identify them under the rays of an ultraviolet light," said Maryland DNR fisheries biologist Harley Speir. "The fish will be stocked in the Juniata River, Penns Creek, several other upstream locations as well as sites below Conowingo Dam."

Spier says the restoration of American and hickory shad is part of a larger program aimed at restoring all migratory fish populations throughout the Susquehanna River drainage system.

"It's a very complex program and fortunately, it's well-funded by federal funds and various electrical power companies utilizing river water to generate energy," Spier said.

Under an agreement signed by the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania and upstream utilities above Conowingo Dam, fish passage must be in place by the turn of the century.

"This agreement is a landmark development, but it has to be coupled with continued and expanded conservation before we'll have full recovery of Maryland's shad population," said William Goldsborough, senior fisheries biologist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"Certainly, we've had a shad moratorium in Maryland and Chesapeake Bay, but during that time, we've had a large and growing commercial intercept fishery in the Atlantic Ocean.

"We have to extend our conservation efforts well into the ocean ** before we will have full restoration of American shad in the Chesapeake or its tributaries."

Goldsborough said the recovery process has been painstakingly slow.

"Certainly it's nice to see a big statistical increase in the Susquehanna River's shad population, but it's still a drop in the ,, bucket when compared to historical levels," he said. "Additionally, there's some question as to how much of the recovery can be attributed to natural reproduction or are these fish a result of hatchery stocking programs."

Will Harford County anglers be able to again fish for American or hickory shad in the lower Susquehanna or its tributaries? Unless there's a dramatic improvement, not in the near future.

Director of DNR's Fisheries Division W. Peter Jensen says under ASMFC guidelines, a limited recreational fishery could be opened when the number of adult shad rises to about 500,000. The population of the Susquehanna's shad is estimated at 104,000 spawning-age adults.

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