Each spring, the American shad lays its eggs far upstream in a handful of rivers. Beginning at the Potomac, these rivers angle off from the Atlantic Ocean along America’s northeast coast.
The newly laid eggs are miniscule and nearly transparent–only slightly heavier than the water. They float near the surface for a while until eventually drifting to the bottom, where they hatch in a few days.
As they grow in size, the young fry feed on insects and freshwater plankton over the summer, then gradually make their way downstream, hurried along by fall rains, through the salt marshes. They disappear into the vast Atlantic, not to return until they mature four to five years later.
Until Colonial times, the shad migrating up the Brandywine River to spawn were so thick in number, the stories were told, the water “boiled” with their activity. But, beginning in the early 1800s, the migrations stopped, turned back by dams that in rapid succession blockaded the Brandywine.
Every year in the two centuries since, shad still come back to the mouth of the river, but then turn away and swim somewhere farther up the coast. In a few years, this recent history might be reversed.
“Our long-term goal is to establish migratory fish once again to the Brandywine,” says Sherri Evans-Stanton. She’s director of the Environmental Management Center of the Brandywine Conservancy, which has put together a coalition of groups and governmental agencies.
In 2003, the Conservancy obtained a grant from the National Wildlife Federation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to study the possibility. “We identified 11 dams and established relationships with each of the owners,” Evans-Stanton says, pointing to a map of dams projected on the wall of the group’s beamed meeting room, a hundred yards from the river in Chadds Ford. “In 2005, a feasibility study was completed with site-specific recommendations.”
Only one of those dams still poses a problem–but it’s a big one. It is located near the mouth of the Brandywine in Wilmington, where salt water gives way to fresh water. For purposes of labeling, it is referred to as Dam #1. Except on rare occasions, such as during a flood, this is where the shad are stopped.
People have built dams across streams through the centuries for a number of reasons–to store water for nearby cities, to provide recreation for sportsmen, to prevent flooding and, in the past century, to generate electrical energy. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, dams were constructed up and down the East Coast to provide factories with the power to manufacture goods. There were black powder mills, woolen mills, flour mills.
There are 11 such dams along the Brandywine in Delaware and more farther upstream in Pennsylvania–including Hoffman’s Mill dam, now breached, which provided water for the old mill that is now home to the Brandywine River museum.
“Not every dam can, or has to be, removed or breached,” Evans-Stanton explains. In fact, four–Dams #7 through #10–are historic structures belonging to Hagley Museum and are themselves protected. Dam #2 at Broom Street is important in providing the city of Wilmington with water. But, even in these cases, there are solutions, such as putting a notch in the dam, creating a series of baffles for a “fish ladder” (also known as a Denil fishway), or building alternate channels around the dams.
None of those solutions work for Dam #1, perhaps the smallest but most costly barrier to deal with. In fact Dam #1–located at the end of West Street in downtown Wilmington–isn’t a dam at all.
“It’s just a water pipe in the river encased in concrete,” says Kash Srinivasan, Commissioner of the Department of Public Works for the city of Wilmington. How tall? “Oh, about 3 feet,” he estimates. But it is a very important water pipe–”It carries water from the filtration plant.” Srinivasan says the city would be happy to relocate the pipe, constructed about a century ago, to accommodate the shad–just help him find the estimated $1.5 million dollars the relocation will cost.
“Of course, the people who own the dams upstream don’t want to start work until the problem with Dam #1 is handled,” explains Evans-Stanton, while pointing out that efforts to get federal funding, or at least matching grants, continue.
The object of all this affection and fund-raising–the American shad–is not a particularly handsome fish, but it is a sturdy one widely prized by fishermen either to eat or to catch-and-release for sport. Like the more-majestic salmon, it is an anadromus fish, spending years swimming up and down the East Coast in salt water before spawning in fresh.
In profile, the shad looks, aerodynamically, a little like an Airbus–a bit stubby, with about one inch of height for every four inches of length. It is mainly silver with touches of metallic blue and green and a series of black spots trailing back along its upper body from its head. A typical shad might weigh three pounds or more and is quite flavorful, but quite a task to debone. A culinary prize is shad roe or eggs, often fried in butter, a real cholesterolic feast.
“The program started with the University of Delaware,” says Tim Lucas, who heads the Conservancy’s shad-in-the-schools project. “Every year we collect eggs from the Potomac, where the schools have had shad programs since the 1990s, and bring them overnight back here.”
Last spring, 10 schools participated, each with its own mini-hatchery costing about $500. “The children test for water quality and feed the fish” as part of their classrooms activities, Lucas says. The program is also important in building community support for shad restoration.
When the fry are of sufficient size, the children ceremoniously release them in a quiet stretch of river. Swimming downstream with a rising autumn current, the young fish have no problem going over the dams.
Evans-Stanton says the restoration program is not just about the shad. “Shad is an indicator of water quality in a stream,” she maintains, “plus it provides food for other animals, such as fox, heron, and mink, and it provides recreational opportunities.”
Although about the only shad in the Brandywine now are those being released upstream by the students, the Conservancy, founded in 1967, has overcome similar financial roadblocks before in its quest to preserve open land and historic waterways.
And its partners are similarly eager.
“We’re very interested in helping the shad partnership,” Srinivasan says sympathetically, “but right now we’re trying to swim upstream ourselves in this economy.”