Shad may be poised for revival Fish: A commission ponders options to restore the fish, once a premier bay species, but a victim of dam-building, pollution and overfishing.

On the Bay

July 24, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT'S IMPORTANT to keep fish, like quotes, in proper context.

It's especially important to do this in the next week with the American shad, which could be the Chesapeake Bay's next great revival but remains one of its great losses.

My first context for shad is personal. It begins with catching them, 40 years ago, during their spring spawning runs from the Atlantic on the little creek where I grew up.

It was thrilling and ultimately enthralling, forging a lifelong connection for an Eastern Shore kid with the grand scheme of the Chesapeake, whose tributaries once offered up shad to citizens of the watershed from New York (up the Susquehanna) to the Shenandoah valley (via the James).

This context extends to my son and daughter, who are 19 and 16, and who never had the chance to catch a shad.

Overfishing, pollution, dam building -- all took a terrible toll on this, one of the bay's premier sport and commercial species.

In recent years, Maryland and the other watershed states have been working successfully to remove or bypass the dams. Water quality is generally good enough to support shad runs again.

But overfishing is a murkier matter.

Even as bay rivers have been off-limits to nearly a generation of shad anglers, Maryland and other coastal states let commercial netting for shad continue.

As the fish move along the ocean coast to enter spawning rivers from Maine to Florida, gill nets snare them. The catch was a million pounds in 1996 (the most recent year for which figures are available), down from 2.1 million pounds in 1989.

Since the shad mingle in the ocean before seeking the various coastal river systems where they were born, no one can sort out how many fish bound for the Chesapeake are being taken by the netters.

Also, some of the other shad runs -- in the Hudson, the Connecticut and the Delaware rivers -- remain relatively healthy (though some worrisome declines have recently become apparent).

Even so, it makes no sense to continue netting shad by the ton, without season or limit, and often just off the mouth of the Chesapeake, even as we spend millions attempting to restore them in bay rivers.

At least that's what most people would think. But the latest scientific assessment by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has concluded there is no over-harvest.

Other fisheries scientists who reviewed the study have called it flawed. Opinions among the 15 coastal states from Maine to Florida appear mixed.

All of this will soon be sorted out by the ASMFC, which has federal authority to make the coastal states abide by a new shad management plan it is completing.

The ASMFC's draft plan will the subject of a public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday at the Worcester County public library in Snow Hill (or send comments by July 31 to Bob Bachman, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis 21401).

The ASMFC is considering four options. The least restrictive would maintain the so-called "ocean intercept" fishing at about its present level.

The most restrictive would immediately close ocean fishing; another proposal would phase it out over the next five years.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has called for an end to all ocean netting. Maryland has no stated position on the politically touchy subject.

Ocean shad netters like Kevin Wark, who runs his 39-foot vessel out of New Jersey, argue that for them it is a tradition going back a generation or more, and a significant source of income.

Ironically, Wark says fishermen are limited on how much net they can set for shad nowadays by the abundance of striped bass, which fill up the nets and can't be kept because of strict conservation quotas.

"It's like shoveling dirt all day for no pay," he says, referring to the work of throwing the stripers back.

And citing the recent ASMFC scientific assessment, Wark says there is no evidence of overfishing.

Here is where we return to the matter of context again, this time in a broader, historical way.

The science that says there is no overfishing of shad appears to consider it mainly in the context of rivers that still have shad -- not in the context of the Chesapeake, which for all practical purposes does not have them anymore.

I always have worried that if we let any of the bay's depleted natural resources stay gone for too long, we will risk losing our impetus to bring them back.

That may be close to happening with the shad. The solution is to remove obstructions to as many miles of traditional spawning rivers as possible.

It also would help to expand the rebuilding of fish populations with hatchery shad (which is showing modest success on the one river where we've tried it, the Susquehanna).

Keep in mind another context -- economic. A million pounds of shad in the ocean may be significant income for fishermen, but the bony shad don't fetch big prices.

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