New shad festival spawns hopes Comeback: The troubled species has not rebounded enough to warrant lifting a moratorium on catching the fish, but at least there is reason to anticipate improvement.

On the Bay

April 19, 1996

To anyone looking for a literal taste of what will soon become one of the brightest spots in the bay's restoration, I recommend Maryland's first shad festival in nearly two decades.

The shadfest will be held from 10 a.m. till 4 p.m. April 27 on the Nanticoke River at Vienna, just downstream of the U.S. 50 bridge between Cambridge and Salisbury.

It will feature a 9-mile canoe/kayak race, music, science exhibits, children's activities and an old-fashioned shad planking -- the tastiest way yet devised to cook a fish whose very name, Alosa sapidissima, means highly savory.

The most recent celebration of the spring return of spawning shad in Maryland ended in 1978, when the Izaak Walton League canceled its annual fishing tournament on the Susquehanna.

There just weren't enough shad to bother with, a spokesman said at the time.

And in 1979, Maryland placed a moratorium on the catching of shad in its bay rivers.

Seventeen years later, shad still have not come back enough to warrant lifting the ban -- this in stark contrast to the situation with rockfish, which rebounded so strongly within a few years of a 1984 moratorium that they are once again considered abundant.

In fact, one might better call the Nanticoke event a week from tomorrow an "anticipation" rather than a celebration. The shad you will eat (free, first come, first served) are from outside the bay system.

On the other hand, there is every reason for anticipation, says Bill Goldsborough, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's senior fisheries scientist.

The foundation, along with several environmental, governmental and corporate groups that form the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance, is sponsoring the shad festival.

First, Goldsborough says, the water quality of bay rivers is generally good enough to support shad runs and is improving. The rebound of rockfish, which spawn in the same rivers, is evidence of this.

Second, legislation similar to the federal oversight authority that brought back the rockfish is in place for other coastal migrating species, including shad.

This will be critical, since overfishing played a significant role in the decline of the bay's shad runs.

For example, catches of striped bass, at the point when fishing for them was banned, had fallen to 10 percent of historical levels. But shad catches in 1979 were a mere 1 percent of 1959 levels and a far lower percentage than that of the historical levels.

Even now, no moratorium applies to catching shad off the ocean coast of Maryland and Virginia, which many experts say kills bay-bound shad before they have a chance to reach spawning rivers.

Finally, great progress is being made in reopening literally thousands of miles of historic spawning habitat to the bay's shad and other species, such as river herring and rockfish.

Since Colonial days, the Chesapeake's vast tributary system has been increasingly amputated from the standpoint of upstream-running fish such as shad -- by dams, road culverts, pipelines crossing streams and other barriers.

Unlike salmon, bay species are not great leapers. A vertical barrier of even several inches may be enough to stop them. Larger dams on rivers such as the Susquehanna and James have stopped shad at Richmond that once ran clear to the Blue Ridge and halted migrations at Conowingo that once reached Cooperstown, N.Y.

As of March, Maryland alone had reopened 159 miles of such blocked habitat, and the state is scheduled to reopen 98 miles more this year.

By 2003, the state will have restored 413 miles, and Virginia and Pennsylvania say shad will again have clear pathways up the James and Susquehanna.

According to Larry Leasner, who heads Maryland's Fish Passage program, current state projects range from rural creeks on the Chester and Choptank rivers to Johnson's Pond dam in the industrial heart of Salisbury.

Soon, fish passage through Wilson's Mill Dam near Darlington will reopen 24 miles of Deer Creek across Harford County, historically a prime shad tributary.

Another project in the works will let shad bypass the last dam blocking the main stem of the Patapsco, enabling the fish, for the first time since 1842, to run all the way to Liberty Reservoir.

Just reopening river miles is no guarantee of the shad's comeback. So low have their numbers fallen that it is going to take years of restocking with shad from hatcheries to restart historic runs, but the capacity to do that, from state, federal and corporate hatching operations, also is coming on line now.

The restoration won't be cheap, and Maryland is increasingly peopled by citizens who know shad as an exotic menu item, rather than as a staple of springtime sport and eating.

Therefore, Mr. Goldsborough says, it is also essential "to inspire the public about the past glory of shad and their future potential. They are a tangible way to connect the people of almost every river with a species that for centuries was one of the bay's most important."

To that end, the bay foundation has developed a "shad curriculum" that is being tested in pilot schools.

Students raise and release young shad and link their annual return with stewardship of their home river system.

Restoring shad is ultimately about more than sport or fine dining; it is about forging bonds among the people of the bay's vast watershed and the tributaries that drain it.

It starts in eight days in Vienna. It won't succeed until shad festivals are a common rite of spring across the state.

fTC For information on the First Annual Nanticoke Shad Festival, call the foundation's Nanticoke office in Laurel, Del., at (302) 875-1650 or (410) 883 3140.

Pub Date: 4/19/96

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