It's an upstream battle, but blueback herring are in Little Patuxent

May 10, 1994|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Sun Staff Writer

Two fishermen sat sullenly in the pouring rain next to the Little Patuxent River in western Anne Arundel County, creels empty.

On the opposite bank stood another angler, switching lures in the vain hope he would find the right one.

A stone's throw away, a school of about 200 blueback herring could be seen hovering temptingly in shallow water above a sandbar.

While their tantalizing presence may have been the cause of frustration among the assembled fishermen, it is cause for celebration among fisheries experts, who say the blueback herring is making a comeback in the Little Patuxent River.

"For 30 to 50 years, there have been no substantial herring runs in this river, and now the herring are back," says Bill Harmeyer, ecologist with the Directorate of Public Works at Fort Meade.

Blueback herring, which measure about a foot long, spend most of their lives at sea but return to freshwater streams in April and May to spawn. They then return to the ocean.

Mr. Harmeyer maintains the fish ladder at the dam immediately north of Route 198, which allows the herring to make it to the river's upper reaches to spawn. He says the herring started returning to the river in significant numbers about five years ago.

"We do have figures to show that blueback herring are in resurgence after decades in decline," says Howard King, program chief for recreational and commercial fisheries with the state Department of Natural Resources. "This is an excellent sign of the recovery of this important species."

He cautions that while surveys taken since 1968 confirm the resurgence and the past two years have produced "robust" herring runs, recovery is not complete.

Mr. King attributes the herring's return to several factors: Better water quality; the construction of fish ladders; and increased regulation of offshore fishing is preventing overfishing, which depleted the species in the 1950s and 1960s.

Mr. Harmeyer agrees. "The river has gotten much, much better," he says, adding that it is home to more and different species of fish. "You don't have smallmouth bass in bad water."

Officials have credited innovations such as better storm water runoff management, better farming practices and improvements at wastewater treatment plants along tributaries of the Patuxent River, with reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the river.

Another indication of the Little Patuxent's improving health is that a fish called the glassy darter has taken up residence at Fort Meade. The glassy darter requires a clean sandy river bottom with no heavy sedimentation. The Little Patuxent is the only river on Maryland's Western Shore known to harbor the species.

Some local fishermen say the Little Patuxent is cleaner than it used to be, but they are not so sure about the increase in numbers and variety.

"The fish have been there all the time," says John Castle, who has owned John's Live Bait and Tackle in Laurel for nine years.

The reason people are finding more fish in the river, he says, may be that people are looking harder for them.

Larry Coburn, who has fished the area for 18 years, agrees. "I don't think they were ever gone. It's possible they've been there all along, and no one ever fished it to say otherwise."

Mr. Coburn, who has owned Laurel Fishing and Hunting for two years, notes that he was catching smallmouth bass in the Little Patuxent 10 years ago. "The fish ladder definitely helped," he says.

More fisherman are fishing the area, he adds, and the transfer of 8,100 acres from Fort Meade to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center opened up more of the river to recreational use.

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