Giving a fin up to migrating fish

River: Volunteers monitor passages that help herring, shad and perch bypass dams on their way to Patapsco spawning grounds.

March 19, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Lisa Farley and her two daughters braved rain and cold temperatures yesterday morning to do their part in helping a handful of migrating fish complete a 2,000-mile journey from the depths of the Atlantic to their ancestral spawning grounds in the upper reaches of the Patapsco River.

Bundled in raincoats and gloves, the family measured the water temperature and helped crank the wheel to open the fish ladder at Daniels Dam on the Patapsco, allowing shad, herring and perch to swim upstream and spawn.

No fish were sighted, but the Farleys weren't discouraged.

"We should help them because it's our fault their population is declining, because of the dams," 12-year-old Michelle said.

The Farleys, armed with rakes and shovels to keep leaves from blocking the fish ladder, were recruited by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Department of Natural Resources to help ensure the fish populations have a chance of increasing.

"It's a good science project, too," said Farley of Columbia, who was also joined by her daughter Jocelyn, 10.

Volunteers are needed to monitor dams to clear debris, measure water temperature and note the fish species they see, said Kim Donahue, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's regional manager of outreach and training.

The foundation is trying to recruit at least 50 helpers who would adopt a passage at one of 10 sites - in counties including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Harford, Charles and Cecil - once or twice a week for about a half-hour each visit.

Dams, along with water quality problems and recreational and commercial fishing, have contributed to declining fish populations on Chesapeake-area rivers for more than 150 years, said Carla Fleming, manager of DNR's fish passage project.

Finding ways to help fish make their way around the dams that block the Patapsco and other rivers around the bay has been a daunting challenge but one that is vital to the future of the fish.

"Our native historic fish populations ... are only going to spawn in historic grounds," Donahue said.

Responding to sharp population declines, DNR established in 1987 the goal of reopening 388 miles of spawning habitat throughout the state, Fleming said. So far, 345 miles have been opened with funding provided through the Chesapeake Bay Agreement, a compact among Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia that aims to restore the bay's ecosystem.

Before the fish passages were cleared, 23 miles of the Patapsco's main channel - including more than 350 acres of historic habitat - were blocked by dams, according to DNR.

Now the Patapsco's main channel is like a fish superhighway. Four dams - Bloede, Daniels, Simkins and Union - have been modified to allow fish to pass. The river is clear of obstructions for 14 miles above those dams, Fleming said.

The Daniels Dam, like others along the river, was built to supply water for a mill and later used for hydroelectric generation, according to DNR. The dam no longer generates power. The Daniels fish ladder was completed in 1993.

The fish ladders and passages are opened from the end of February to mid-June to allow fish to reach their historic spawning grounds. After spawning, the adult fish return to the ocean.

Fleming said the department has monitored the passages in recent years and determined that the fish have been using them. The next step is to research whether the fish are using the reopened spawning habitat.

"The hope is that [fish passages] will help the population revive," Fleming said. "The populations have gone down so much in the past decades."

For example, the population of shad in the Chesapeake watershed is down to about 2 percent of historical levels. "We don't want to see a situation where you would completely lose shad," Donahue said.

There are hopeful signs. Shad are returning in record numbers to the Susquehanna River, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Fish passages have also been cleared on the Patapsco tributaries Stony Run and Deep Run, which also had blocking dams.

Ideally, dams that are no longer functioning would be removed, but it is often too costly to dredge the sediment behind the structures, Fleming said. However, she said, DNR is looking into removing Union Dam because water moves through too quickly for fish to ascend easily.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation will be training volunteers at 6 p.m. Thursday at its headquarters, the Philip Merrill Environmental Center, 6 Herndon Ave., Annapolis. Information: 443-482- 2155.

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