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Obama’s herring: Removing dams on the Patapsco brings back a silvery little fish | COMMENTARY

This alewife, a type of river herring, swam from the Atlantic Ocean up the Patapsco River on its spring migration. It is the first such herring recorded by state biologists upstream of an area where a dam once blocked fish passage to spawning habitat.
This alewife, a type of river herring, swam from the Atlantic Ocean up the Patapsco River on its spring migration. It is the first such herring recorded by state biologists upstream of an area where a dam once blocked fish passage to spawning habitat. (Jim Thompson, Maryland DNR)

Jim Thompson and William Harbold discovered silver in a place in the Patapsco River where it had not been seen in more than a century. The discovery occurred last Friday around 10 a.m. about 3 miles downstream of Ellicott City and just upstream of where the Bloede Dam used to be.

As discoveries go, it was hardly sensational; it did not send shock waves through the stock exchange.

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But attention must be paid: What these two Maryland biologists found in the Patapsco offers living proof that a river enslaved by man can be liberated and returned, if not to historic glory, at least to natural purpose, and I hail that a great thing.

Once upon a time, the Patapsco fairly shimmered each spring with silver alewives and their blueback cousins, the river herring that swam in massive schools hundreds of miles from the Atlantic to freshwater spawning beds.

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But, starting in the late 18th century, after the construction of dams and mills, the silver disappeared. The Patapsco had been harnessed and repurposed to power industry, and it looked as if it would always be that way. The herring were blocked from upstream migrations, unable to reach their natal waters. They somehow survived, managing to reproduce elsewhere.

William Harbold, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, steers a raft during a survey for migratory herring on the Patapsco River in the Ilchester area of Howard County.
William Harbold, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, steers a raft during a survey for migratory herring on the Patapsco River in the Ilchester area of Howard County. (Jim Thompson, Maryland DNR)

As years and generations passed, and the mills and factories closed, the dams were no longer needed. However, no one seemed inclined to spend the money to remove them, though their uselessness was clear. The dams not only had had a devastating effect on migratory fish, they were dangerous obstacles. (Several deaths, including drownings, had occurred near Bloede.) Though the dams were unnecessary and unsightly, people had grown used to seeing them in the postindustrial landscape west of Baltimore.

Then came another important moment in Patapsco history — the 2008 election of President Barack Obama and the recession that greeted him as he took office.

What, you ask, has that to do with the discovery of a single, silvery alewife in the Patapsco upstream of where the Bloede Dam used to be, and why do we care?

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If you recall, in Obama’s first month, Congress approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion stimulus package that Democrats pushed to reverse economic collapse. (Not a single Republican in the House of Representatives voted for it, and only three Republicans in the Senate backed the measure, though some noted economists and former Obama aides said the government should have spent far more than it did.)

American Rivers, a conservation organization born in the environmental movement of the early 1970s, worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the federal funds to get the Patapsco project started. By the late summer of 2010, a demolition crew had taken down the Union Dam. The removal of the Simkins Dam followed that fall.

Eight years later, with more federal funding and money from the state and two foundations, the Bloede demolition started.

Built near Ilchester Road in 1906, Bloede was the last dam between Ellicott City and Baltimore harbor and the Chesapeake Bay. Its removal opened up several miles of free-flowing river to migratory fish.

But a mystical question loomed: Would the herring come back? Could they and other migratory fish — the hickory shad and American shad — find their way to Ellicott City and even beyond? Their ancestors had been spawned there centuries earlier, but would they know that?

The answer came last Friday as Thompson and Harbold floated in a raft and conducted a survey for the Department of Natural Resources.

The one male alewife — I’m calling it Obama’s herring — turned up in the waters upstream of where Bloede used to be, having made a heroic journey there from the Atlantic.

“At the very least,” Harbold says, “the individual we collected last week swam the entire length of the Chesapeake Bay from Cape Charles, Virginia, to Ilchester Road, and potentially much further, assuming it was living further out in the Atlantic.”

And why do we care about this little fish? It’s not likely to make the menu at Tersiguel’s in Ellicott City.

“It’s a sign of success for one of the main goals in this dam removal project — improved passage for migratory fish,” Harbold explains. “River herring are imperiled throughout their range due to overfishing and the loss of spawning habitat.”

So the alewife that Thompson and Harbold measured and returned to the river supports the science that taking down useless dams will rebuild fish populations. And the more alewives and blueback herring, the better for the larger fish, mammals and birds that feed on them — bass, cod, haddock, tuna, seals and otters, osprey and cormorants.

“That single fish was able to swim unimpeded from the Atlantic Ocean to that spot in the Patapsco River,” Harbold says. “That’s something that hasn’t been possible for well over 100 years, maybe longer. It’s quite possible that we were the first people to see a wild, freely migrating herring in that part of the Patapsco in over a century. I personally think that’s pretty cool.

“Bringing this one fish — and hopefully many more of its friends — won’t restore all the damage that’s been done by dams on the Patapsco River and elsewhere, but it’s a start.”

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