Shades of shad past

Resurgence: Although runs on most bay rivers remain down, conservation efforts have helped the fish come back in the upper area.

May 25, 2001|By Tom Horton | By Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

Leon Senft has been angling for American shad in the Susquehanna River for almost 50 years, long enough to remember the good old days before huge declines in springtime spawning runs led Maryland to close the season in 1980.

But the York, Pa., fisherman says, "I never caught so many as in the last few years."

Senft's fishing nowadays is all catch and release because shad runs on most Chesapeake Bay rivers remain extremely depressed and keeping any is forbidden in Maryland and Virginia.

But he and other old-timers in his Susquehanna Shad Club, who record every shad they catch for Maryland biologists, are a testament to a remarkable resurgence of upper bay shad in the past few years.

It's the payoff from more than a decade of stocking the Susquehanna with millions of baby shad from hatcheries and building nearly $60 million worth of fish passages over hydroelectric dams blocking the river at Conowingo in Maryland and in Holtwood, Safe Harbor and York Haven in Pennsylvania.

Biologists say it is possible for spawning shad to run, for the first time in a century or more, all the way to Binghamton, N.Y., about 440 miles above Havre de Grace, which is at the Susquehanna's mouth.

In the spring of last year, a record 164,000 American shad returned from the ocean to the base of Conowingo Dam, where two lifts transport the fish over the 104-foot high structure to continue upriver. That was a leap from about 100,000 fish in 1999.

This spring "has just been phenomenal," said Dale Weinrich, a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

As of last weekend, he said, more than 185,000 shad had been passed over Conowingo. The spawning run is tailing off, but he expected to pass about 200,000 shad upriver before it ends.

Other factors are equally encouraging, Weinrich said. A fish trap on the Susquehanna Flats used by the state to monitor shad is catching 40 a day, up from 10 a day in previous years.

Another survey that nets recently hatched shad in the upper bay each year is indicating levels of reproduction not seen since the late 1950s.

Moreover, the bulk of the young fish are not the specially marked ones released from hatcheries, said Weinrich. This means natural reproduction is taking over.

American, or "white" shad, the focus of the restoration program, are the largest (up to 8 pounds) and most prized of four species of shad and herring that once thronged nearly every Chesapeake tributary from March to May.

Historically, they formed a critical link between the Chesapeake and the people of its drainage basin as far inland as Cooperstown, N.Y., source of the Susquehanna, and in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where shad ran the James River past Lynchburg.

A history of Wyoming County, Pa., near the New York border, tells how a spring run of shad happily concluded a lean winter in 1773:

"Never was the coming of the shad looked for with more anxiety or hailed with more cordial delight. The fishing season dissipated all fears, and the dim eye was soon exchanged for the glance of joy and the dry, sunken cheek of want assumed the plump appearance of health and plenty."

"Their coming was the principal food for all the inhabitants. ... No farmer or man with a family was without his barrels of shad," a correspondent of the Berwick, Pa. Independent recalled in 1881.

Although no one needs shad to survive these days, they are a great attraction to sportfishermen. Pennsylvania's Fish and Boat Commission projects a $30 million annual economic benefit from returning sport fishing for shad to the Susquehanna.

When Weinrich began working with Chesapeake shad in 1979, Maryland was preparing to close its season for the first time.

Catches of American shad had fallen from nearly 8 million pounds in the 1880s to tens of thousands of pounds, the result of dams, pollution and decades of huge fishing pressure.

In 1922, for example, 150 rail cars loaded full of shad left the seafood port of Crisfield from March 17 to April 9. "Shad near doom" a Baltimore Sun headline said that May. Watermen had just strung a giant shad net across much of the upper bay, with narrow room left for ships to pass. In 1980, there were no more than 5,000 or 6,000 American shad left in the upper bay, biologists estimated. Weinrich estimates that the population there last year was more than 1 million. Even with the big improvement, it is still a long way to full restoration of shad to the Susquehanna, said Richard St. Pierre, a federal fisheries biologist in charge of the effort.

St. Pierre, speaking at a conference in Baltimore this week on the status of shad worldwide, said the long-term goal is to pass 4 million shad a year over Conowingo and 2 million a year over York Haven, the last dam before Binghamton.

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