July 23, 2008

Susquehanna Shad: Is All Lost?

By Ad Crable

Only a few years ago, it all seemed so promising.

American shad, once a prized spring staple of locals' diet and an economic linchpin up and down the Susquehanna, at last seemed headed for a comeback amid a multi-state and federal restoration plan.

Visions of again catching the silvery, forked-tail fish, perhaps frying its tasty roe in butter, danced in anglers' heads.

Fish lifts or ladders - costing utilities tens of millions of dollars - were in place on all the lowermost hydroelectric dams by the mid-1990s. Old dams in tributaries, including the Conestoga River, were being ripped out in anticipation of the new arrivals.

The decades-old shad restoration effort seemed to be taking off. An exciting catch-and-release season was opened at the base of the downriver-most Conowingo Dam.

Some 15,700 shad from the Atlantic Ocean showed up at the Conowingo Dam near the mouth of the Susquehanna River, their birth river, in 1990.

Five years, later, 61,600 arrived. Then 163,300 in 2000, the record eclipsed the next year with 193,500.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's goal of 2 million shad migrating up the Susquehanna, nearly into New York state, seemed just a matter of time.

Then things started going wrong. From 109,300 in 2004, the shad return dropped almost in half the next year. The spiral continued with 29,000 in 2007.

This year, a piddling 19,914 shad banged their heads against the Conowingo Dam. Of these stragglers, a mere 2,795 made their way to the next dam, Holtwood. Only 1,252 reached Safe Harbor and a stretch of the river considered suitable for successful spawning.

At the York Haven Dam, the gateway to the main stem and West Branch of the Susquehanna, only 21 fish were counted, though dam operators had been told not to waste much time looking for them.

It's kind of going the opposite way than we thought we were going. We're scratching our heads on what's going on, says Leroy Young, director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Bureau of Fisheries.

What's happening on the Susquehanna is not isolated. Shad migrate up and down the East Coast, ducking into 64 birth rivers along the way. From Florida to Maine, American shad stocks are now at all- time lows, reports the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

With few exceptions - the Potomac River and Virginia's York River - the bleeding continues even after the ASMFC halted the commercial take of American shad in the ocean in 2005. (Limited landings of shad bycatch are still permitted.)

The situation has gotten so dire that the ASMFC is proposing to further limit commercial and recreational keeping of shad and river herring, another imperiled migratory fish, in ocean and rivers.

Could the popular recreational shad fishery on the Delaware River - six fish a day may be kept - be at stake?

It's something that will have to be considered, says Young, though he's quick to point out that creel surveys indicate as much as 90 percent of shad are released on the Delaware.

A public hearing on the ASMFC proposal was hosted by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission in Harrisburg on July 1 and drew comments from about 12 people.

What's gone wrong?

,Some believe significant numbers of shad are being killed offshore by the commercial fishing industry under the bycatch exception.

,Some point to the amazing comeback of the striped bass, a shad predator. Are they decimating shad stocks in places such as the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, as well as the ocean?

,Poor performance at some fish passageways at dams also is cited.

,The ASMFC broaches an even broader possibility: The synchronous decline (in rivers up and down the East Coast) suggests a coastwide change in environmental conditions or mortality factors that affected stocks from South Carolina to Maine over the last five years.

Is something happening in the ocean, perhaps precipitated by global warming?

There are a number of suspects, acknowledges Larry Miller, coordinator of the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers Anadramous Fish Restoration Committee.

Miller thinks the concern about rejuvenated populations of striped bass taking out inordinate numbers of shad bears more study.

And he's suspicious that large numbers of migrating shad are still being intercepted by commercial fisheries.

Improved performance at fish passageways on Susquehanna dams is important, Miller says. We definitely need to get better passage than we have.

Young notes that the Conowingo, Safe Harbor and York Haven dams all come up for federal relicensing in 2014. We will be working with those utilities beginning in 2009 to try to improve efficiency, he says.

Last year, PPL agreed to major modifications at its Holtwood Dam to attract more shad to its fish lifts.

Miller refuted allegations by some fishers that what juvenile shad are hatched in the Susquehanna are chewed up by dam turbines as they try to swim to the sea in the fall. Studies on survival using small tagging balloons on juveniles show more than 90 percent survival, he says.

Of the future viability of an American shad population once again swimming up and down the Susquehanna, he says this: It's not a rosy picture for sure. But if you still have some to work with, you're not totally down and out.

PFBC's Young, noting that the PFBC was formed in 1886 in an attempt to boost shad numbers, vows Pennsylvania is not throwing in the towel.

We're not giving up. We're hoping we can get this thing turned around.

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