A million year old cycle of fish migration almost came to an end in the waters off of the nation’s capital. But a monumental conservation effort has brought them back from the brink. Sabri Ben-Achour explains:
A million year old cycle of fish migration almost came to an end in the waters off of the nation’s
capital. But a monumental conservation effort has brought them back from the brink. Sabri Ben-
I bet you can’t recognize this sound.
It is the sound of a female shad – it’s a type of fish – having its eggs squeezed out into a metal
“In the bowl, it looks like applesauce.”
That’s biologist Catherine Lim. We are on a boat in the middle of the Potomac, 20 miles south of
Washington DC, harvesting and fertilizing shad eggs. Lim picks up a male shad and gives it a
“Yeah, he sprayed out there.”
She mixes the brew around and adds water.
“We’ll bag them up and send them to the fish hatchery.”
This is all part of an effort to restore the population of the American Shad. For millions of years,
the large silver-iridescent fish have swum in from the Atlantic and up the rivers of the East Coast
every spring to spawn. They return to the same place where their lives began, guided by a
unique geological odor that seeps from the earth and mountains that feed each river.
Once upon a time – only a century ago – these fish were so numerous they turned the water silver
and made rivers move.
At least that’s what Jim Cummins says, he’s a biologist.
“On the Susquehanna, there were so many of them they created a wave as they came up the
river, a standing wave.”
On the Potomac they fueled entire industries. According to newspaper reports, Washington DC
exported 4 million barrels of salted shad every year in the 1840’s.
“The wagons would come into Georgetown were so heavy that they crammed up the city – I think
it’s the first report of gridlock in Washington.”
The fish fed more than just commerce – they nourish everything from crabs to dolphins. Bald
Eagles actually evolved to time their egg laying early, so their chicks would hatch just as the Shad
and their relatives appeared in the river. And then came overfishing, dams, and pollution.
“In the 1960’s, there were times when the migratory fish came up to spawn in the area and met
that pollution, and hundreds of thousands of them died and made a stinking mess.”
The clean water act was passed in 1972, but by 1980, the fish were almost wiped out. A
moratorium on fishing at the time was too little too late. Water quality gradually improved as
waste water treatment plants were upgraded and aquatic grasses returned. But still, no Shad.
So Cummins began the Shad restoration project.
They had to use several nets – each hundreds of feet long – just to catch one fish. They got help
from fisheries and even elementary schools. Dams were fixed to let fish go around them. The
Shad population exploded.
At a boat house just outside of DC, anglers Steve Bocat and Louis Covax are enjoying success
that up until recently, few alive have seen here.
“It was great we had incredible fishing. I mean, between the two of us, we had, what, 50-60 fish
up to the boat?”
Another sign of success, a pair of Bald Eagles recently returned to the area following the fish –
the first in decades.
For The Environment Report, I’m Sabri Ben-Achour.