SHAD Their frenzied spring spawn is missing from Md. waters. Will Congress intervene?

July 04, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

If the oyster once was king of Chesapeake Bay, the shad was queen. For centuries, residents of the bay region - first native Americans, then European colonists - celebrated the arrival of spring by feasting on the bony but succulent fish and the roe, or eggs, produced by spawning females.

During the Revolutionary War, salted shad helped save George Washington's troops from starvation as they wintered at Valley Forge, some accounts say.

In the 1800s, shad were so abundant and cheap that farmers along the Susquehanna River used them to fertilize crops.

Well into the 1920s, bay watermen continued to catch shad by the ton, and trainloads were sent to Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Even in the 1960s, spawning runs in the upper bay remained an angler's bonanza.

Yet today the shad - like the oyster - symbolizes the Chesapeake's squandered bounty.

Maryland's commercial catch of the fish slid from a peak of 7 million pounds in 1890 to just 24,000 pounds in 1980, when the state banned further fishing for American shad.

It was a decline of more than 99 percent.

Spawning runs now are feeble echoes of the past, and the catch ban has never been lifted. A dwindling number of people even remember what the fish tastes like.

Shad have not rebounded in the bay despite a restoration effort costing $25 million so far. It includes raising millions of fish in hatcheries and building elevator-like lifts over dams on the Susquehanna, the most important spawning river in the Chesapeake.

"We just kicked the fish. . .so much, we knocked it down next to nothing," says Dale Weinrich, shad biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

No substanial recovery is expected before the turn of the century -- if ever.

The shad's history in the bay illustrates how a hugh, seemingly limitless population can, if over-exploited, be so depleted that recovery is far from assured.

Yet state governments and fishing interests still seem slow to heed that lesson. Overfishing also threatens at least 19 other Atlantic Coast fish, several of them important to the Chesapeake.

But there is hope: Migratory species like the shad need regional protection, and legislation now before Congress would force the Atlantic states to make a coordinated effort to conserve all coastal fish.

Proponents say that Maryland, Virginia and the other states need a shove from Washington because they have listened mainly to their watermen and moved slowly on fishing restrictions.

"We don't know how to deal with abundance," says William J. Goldsborough, fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"We see fish out there, we want to catch 'em. That's human nature. But we're trying to resist that way of thinking now."

An amazing species

It was the "catch 'em" philosophy that caused the decimation of a remarkable fish.

Once called "poor man's salmon," American or white shad have long been prized for their flavor and admired for their marathon runs from the Atlantic Ocean up East Coast rivers to spawn. They grow to about 30 inches and roughly 4 pounds.

This energetic fish, a member of the herring family, is anadromous, meaning it begins life in fresh water, where eggs laid by spawning females are fertilized by males.

Hatched in spring when the shad bush is in bloom, the young stay in the rivers through summer, eating plankton and tiny insects and growing to a length of 3 to 5 inches.

In the fall, when water temperatures drop, the young fish head downriver to the Atlantic. They join shad spawned in other rivers and migrate along the coast as the seasons change.

Three to six years later, these same fish return to their birth rivers to spawn. And, because most shad get only one chance at reproduction, they give it their all. In a mating ritual that churns the water's surface, each female spews up to 600,000 eggs into the river. But only one in 100,000 eggs fertilized by the waiting males survives to grow up.

In the 1600s, when the first colonists arrived in the New World, major East Coast rivers such as the Connecticut, Delaware, Hudson and Susquehanna teemed with spawning shad.

American Indians taught the Europeans how to catch and eat the fish whose scientific name, Alosa sapidissima, includes the Latin word for "savory."

Shad were among the fish that Capt. John Smith touted to prospective New World settlers when he published his accounts of the Virginia colony and Chesapeake Bay.

By the early 1800s, shad were the most important commercial catch on the Susquehanna, the Chesapeake's largest tributary.

The river, at the bay's northern tip, attracted at least 2 million adult shad every spring, and some traveled 350 miles upriver to spawn.

On the lower Susquehanna, the shad run drew merchants from Philadelphia and elsewhere who traded goods for fish, to be sold fresh, salted, smoked or dried.

But as the young nation grew, pollution from farms, factories and towns began to affect spawning, and small dams built to power mills blocked the shad's path.

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