“We’re losing this icon, a connection to our past, and our future,” said Mark Bryer, director of the Chesapeake Bay program for the Nature Conservancy. “The spawning run of this fish is a harbinger of spring for us.”
Restoring the shad population is important because they were “historically an economic force,” Bryer said. “This fish is . . . our salmon of the East.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the D.C. Department of the Environment are trying to help restore the shad.
To increase the shad population over the years — as shad struggled to get past the dams in the Susquehanna — hatcheries entered into contracts with some agencies to catch them, extract a few eggs, fertilize them and taxi them north by truck to their final destination, about 100 fish per load.
But that doesn’t always go smoothly. First, trucking shad to rivers is expensive, Hendricks said. Second, they don’t have enough trucks to make up for all the shad being lost. “We’d need 20,000 truck loads,” Hendricks said.
Third, Mother Nature is fickle.
Last week, Ian Park, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, felt the frustration of things going wrong. Weeks of heavy rains made it harder to catch shad. He roared out on the river in the black of night Tuesday, knowing that it would be a hard fishing trip.
Park and his team of five recent college graduates threw out 10 gill nets from two boats in 44 feet of water, waited 45 minutes and pulled in almost nothing, except for catfish and gizzard shad, a similar, slightly uglier variety.
After two hours, Park and two helpers caught only two American shad males that were ready to spawn. The other boat caught only three females that were ripe with eggs. The workers combined their paltry catch.
Park slid a thumb and forefinger across the bellies of the fish and out came eggs and sperm. He whisked and stirred the eggs as if he were about to bake a cake.
The shad, stressed out by the net and the stomach pump, died in Park’s hands. This almost always happens, Park said, but their lives are sacrificed to create hundreds of thousands of fish in Pennsylvania.
But probably not this year.
“Our best night last year was 53 liters, an entire trash can full of shad eggs,” Park said. “This year our best night was 21. Last night, we had 91
2 liters. Not exactly a good night.”
While the shad were giving their lives for science, Park and his workers were risking theirs. Under a half-moon, on flat water, with boats zipping back and forth in the dark, Park worried about being struck by another boat.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is in the final year of a three-year, $100,000 contract to harvest shad eggs for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Van Dyke Hatchery. The hatchery fertilizes the eggs, which are then seeded in the state’s depleted rivers.
The Potomac, which has smaller dams than the Susquehanna, has healthier shad populations. Still, seeding this year isn’t going well, because rainfall has increased water flows, confusing the shad.
In the end, the shad caught Tuesday would do nothing to populate the Susquehanna. The eggs weren’t nearly enough to truck 200 miles to the hatchery near Lewistown, Pa. Park fertilized the eggs and released them into the Potomac.