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Shad run is down to a crawl

Environmental PollutionFishingCredit and DebtHydroelectricityRenewable Energy

You would probably have to over the age of 50 to remember when late May and early June meant shad in Maryland. In those days, the spawning season for American shad and river herring brought young and old to the banks of Maryland tributaries to catch their share of fish once so bountiful that they were shipped by the rail car load from Crisfield to Baltimore.

Shad filet and shad roe were as big a part of the Chesapeake Bay's seafood bounty as anything on the plate today. They fed the American colonists all along the East Coast. In 1890, Maryland fishermen landed 7 million pounds of shad — or about four times the modern day 1.7 million-pound commercial catch of striped bass.

But all that changed in the 20th century to the point where the harvest fell so far (to a mere 24,000 pounds) that Maryland declared a moratorium in 1980. (The more abundant river herring were closed to fishing just last year.) Unlike striped bass, a species that rebounded nearly immediately after a fishing moratorium was instituted, shad have never come back sufficiently to even discuss lifting the ban. All that is permitted in state waters today is for recreational fishermen to catch and release them.

That sad history came into focus last week with the decision by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to next year to institute its own cap on the commercial catch of shad and herring. Maryland's moratorium on shad may have protected the species in state waters but not three miles or more offshore where they are caught as a bycatch.

That ruling may be helpful. It should result in Atlantic Coast mackerel trawlers reducing their shad and herring catch from 900 metric tons today to 236 tons beginning in 2014. But even if successful — and there are still questions about how well the ban will be enforced by federal authorities — it's far from certain whether shad stocks can rebound from their historic lows.

What has suppressed the American shad's return? No doubt loss of habitat, pollution and over-fishing are factors as they have been with most commercially-harvested fish species. But shad are also anadromous, meaning they spawn in freshwater and live much of their lives in the ocean. The presence of hydroelectric dams has made it difficult for shad to spawn in the upper reaches of certain tributaries.

As The Sun's Timothy Wheeler recently chronicled, one of the major roadblocks to shad in Maryland has likely been the Conowingo Dam. Despite the installation of a fish "ladder" to allow shad to bypass the Conowingo (and other dams further upriver), the number of Susquehanna River American shad are on the decline.

Just as the dam's owner, Exelon Corp., must address pollution associated with the facility (chiefly, the increasing environmental threat of silt and sediment that has built up above the dam), the efficacy of its fish ladder needs to be considered as the company seeks a license renewal. Helping preserve shad should not prove an impossible burden for a 572-megawatt generating facility that currently spends just $160,000 of its $17.5 million annual operating budget on running the fish lift.

That doesn't mean we should remove a dam that is such an important source of electricity for the region (as well as a backup source of drinking water for Baltimore), and the sediment build-up is a far more pressing issue than the future of one species. But the license renewal may provide an opportunity for a greater investment in hatcheries to supplement shad stocks and take other actions to boost the annual spawning run in the Nanticoke, Patuxent and Susquehanna rivers which still have viable American shad populations.

Make no mistake, this is no ordinary fish. Historically, shad have spawned in virtually every river on the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Canada, and they are faithful to their native waters, returning to the river where they were born to breed. Strong swimmers, an adult shad may journey 12,000 miles during its average 5-year lifespan.

Reducing fishing pressure on the species, as the Mid-Atlantic council has done, is an important step in the right direction. But other conservation measures will be required if the American shad is to survive into another century. After all, it was shad that allowed the colonists — including George Washington's Continental Army of 1778 — to survive the harsh winters of three centuries ago. The least we can do is return the favor.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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