Fish given a ladder over old obstacle

In the shadow of yet another highway cloverleaf under construction, Jay O'Dell pulls to the shoulder of a busy road in Odenton. He wants to show off a different breed of transportation project.

It's an 8-mile traffic artery reaching all the way to Savage. It won't pave a square foot, dump silt into a single stream or add an iota of smog to the air. Access is limited, however, to herring and shad.


The project is a fishway, recently constructed to restore spring fish migrations over the Fort Meade water supply dam on the Little Patuxent River.

It is a zigzag, staircase affair set into one side of the dam, and is designed to rise gently (no leaping salmon, these Chesapeake fish).


Upstream of the 50-year old dam, biologists have been stocking baby herring for "imprinting" to the water's unique biological characteristics, which the herring somehow will follow home from out in the Atlantic when they mature in a few years. An underwater viewing window has been set into the fishway's side, so the public can watch the aquatic rush hour, which should occur in March or April.

As we grapple with population growth, sprawl development and agricultural pollution, it is apparent that progress in restoring the Chesapeake Bay will be will be slow, diffuse and painful.

But restoring fish passage is relatively cheap, quick and absolute. And it's a good way to remind people throughout a six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed that they are connected to something precious downstream.

Shad, and their smaller cousins the river herring, once ran up Virginia's James River past Charlottesville. They followed the Rappahannock to the borders of the Shenandoah Valley.

Moving up the Susquehanna, the bay's largest river, the migrant tide of fish saved settlers from starvation after the hard winter of 1789. The migration reached as far north as Cooperstown, N.Y.

But by the first half of this century, dams had blocked huge sections of the Chesapeake ecosystem: more than 300 miles on the Susquehanna, for example.

Other factors contributed to the decline of upstream-running species: overfishing and water pollution in the main bay, and probably acid rain.

But blocked waterways are significant, and Mr. O'Dell, a state Department of Natural Resources biologist, knows this better than anyone. For the last 25 years he has been documenting obstructions in thousands of miles of streams in all 16 of Maryland's tidewater counties.


He has found more than 10,000, including major dams, highway culverts, farm ponds, fallen timber, storm drains and beaver dams.

Fish such as the river herring will follow flowing water "as far as they can swim," says Mr. O'Dell. But more than 1,000 miles of potential spawning habitat is blocked in Maryland, and probably more than 2,000 miles baywide.

In 1987, when amendments to the multistate bay restoration agreement finally gave fish passage a high priority, Mr. O'Dell was a natural for the project. Now it's coming together, he says. Dozens of minor obstructions have been cleared, and several large projects are under way:

* On German Branch, a tributary of the Choptank River, construction began in August to bypass an 8-foot dam, re-opening 22 miles of stream into the agricultural interior of the upper Eastern Shore.

* Work on the Patapsco River will restore shad and herring runs to more than 20 miles of river, extending as far as Sykesville and Liberty Reservoir.

Mr. O'Dell says that the Patapsco, now associated mostly with Baltimore Harbor, ultimately should support about 16,000 shad and ten times that many herring.


* The Philadelphia Electric Co., owner of the 110-foot hydro dam at Conowingo, has agreed to build a multimillion-dollar fish elevator to re-open the Susquehanna. PECO resisted all such efforts for years.

* Last week the operators of the three big dams upstream of Conowingo fell into line, promising, in effect, fish passage all the way to New York state by the end of this decade.

My guess is that once we re-open the bay's full circulation, we'll see a synergism -- a combination of reinforcing effects -- that far exceeds our expectations.

For starters, a number of other spring-spawning fish will use part of the added mileage, including yellow and white perch and striped bass. Moreover, year-round residents of rivers, such as largemouth and smallmouth bass, will benefit from feeding on the juveniles of the upstream-running fish.

The species that could make the most of a re-plumbed watershed is the American eel. It's the only bay fish that runs downstream to spawn in the ocean.

Eels are tenacious. A few elvers (young eels) still make it over, under or around all the obstacles on the Susquehanna, reaching as far as Lake Otsego above Cooperstown. Think what they'll do with a clear roadway. And pound for pound, eels are among the most valuable seafood harvested from the bay.


Politically, more attention to the rivers' runs should put needed pressure on Virginia to stop intercepting shad before they can spawn. Genetic analyses indicate that as many of half of all shad homing on the upper bay are being netted off Virginia's ocean coast before even entering the bay.

The positive spinoffs of fish passage don't stop there. Mr. O'Dell believes that the project will raise water-quality standards -- to a level fit for fish spawning -- along hundreds of miles of waterways. Now, most need meet only the lowest standard, for "water contact recreation." Mr. O'Dell also envisions "herring festivals," where people along a stream or river would celebrate the return of the native.

It's hard to imagine a better project to interest kids in the outdoors than bringing back the spring herring run. It would connect bay and ocean to back-yard streams in a highly visible and thrilling way.

Restoring full circulation won't come free, but it's still a bargain. A priority list for bypassing 25 dams in three states has been adopted, promising restoration of 226.2 miles of waterways at a cost of about $3 million. That works out to about $13,000 a mile -- less than you'd pay for a few yards of prime expressway.

And you can eat the traffic.