Pennsylvania fish agency’s shad program appears at crossroads
Harrisburg — Fishermen are by nature optimists, right? The next cast is always going to be the one.
So maybe they’ll see cause for hope here.
The number of American shad returning to Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River were, in 2018, the worst since records started being kept 20 years ago.
The Fish & Boat Commission stocks between 2 million and 5 million shad fry each year, in the Susquehanna, Schuylkill and Lehigh rivers. Of those, the Susquehanna gets most. The agency’s goal is to 2 million shad to run upstream past four dams on that river annually.
This year, just 6,992 were counted passing Conowingo, the first of those four. It’s located just 10 miles upriver from the Chesapeake Bay.
That means hardly any are getting much further beyond that.
“Nearly 70 percent of the shad that pass Conowingo don’t pass Holtwood,” said Josh Tryninewski, a fisheries biologist who runs the Van Dyke research center, which raises shad fry for release.
Most of those that get from Holtwood to Safe Harbor get beyond it, but that’s just a few. Even fewer get beyond York Haven.
Add it all up and only about 3 percent of the shad that get past Conowingo get beyond the last dam, Tryninewski said.
Three percent of 6,992 fish is 210. That’s a far cry from two million. That doesn’t mean the stocking program should come to an end, though, said Andy Shiels, director of the commission’s Bureau of Fisheries.
“So we had a very poor year this year, but that actually emphasizes the need to keep the production going,” Shiels said.
There are some things related to stocking shad the commission can’t control, Shiels said. One is life offshore.
Shad stocked in rivers in spring run to the Atlantic Ocean by their first fall. They live in the sea for four to six years before returning to their natal rivers to spawn.
Few fish leaving rivers for the ocean mean even fewer coming back. It’s important, he said, to keep putting lots of fish into the pipeline.
It’s even more important, from the commission’s perspective, that those fish get put into the system in Pennsylvania, “to ensure there are fish that want to come home to Pennsylvania rivers.”
What’s more, he added, there’s cause for hope.
The dams on the Susquehanna operate under federal licenses. They typically last 50 years, Tryninewski said.
Each of the dams have fish- passage systems, he said. But they work with varying degrees of success.
And, he added, in the past, whether they worked or not, there was little natural resources agencies could do about it.
But, several of the dams – Conowingo right now – are undergoing re-licensing. And new fish-passage systems are being put in place, with new, measurable standards for success accompanying them.
If the systems don’t meet the standards, the agencies can oversee changes aimed at making sure they do, he said.
Interim measures are also being put in place.
The deal at Conowingo, for example, if officially out into place once litigation between the dam operator and the state of Maryland is settled, calls for capturing American shad in the spillway below the dam and trucking them upriver beyond the farthest dam for a period of time, Tryninewski said.
“We expect shad restoration to really pick up” more so than at any time in the past, Shiels said.
The fry produced by Van Dyke are the “bridge” to keep the fishery alive until those tools are put in place.
The Fish & Boat Commission was scheduled to close its Van Dyke hatchery as part of an effort to trim $2 million from its budget. Those plans are on hold – commission Executive Director John Arway said at presstime he was proposing to keep Van Dyke open – at least for now.
So perhaps American shad will once again swim in Pennsylvania rivers in large numbers. There are no guarantees either way.
But there’s perhaps hope, Shiels said. Even if obstacles remain.
“It’s a complicated story,” he said.