By Karl Blankenship, Bay Journal
With little to show for more than two decades of effort, Virginia officials next year plan to suspend shad stocking efforts in the James River, conceding defeat for now in restoring what had once been a major spawning ground for the migratory fish.
"We're not going to fund work next year to continue what we've been doing," said Bob Greenlee, who oversees the program for the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
The stocking effort in the Bay's third-largest tributary began in 1992 with the hope of bolstering depleted American shad numbers and, ultimately, build a self-sustaining population. Biologists also hoped the fish would become so numerous that they would push past a fish ladder at Boshers Dam in Richmond and repopulate the river far upstream.
But 25 years after the first shad were stocked, numbers remain low and tend to be driven by hatchery production of shad fry rather than natural reproduction, as biologists had hoped. Only a few dozen spawning fish typically make it beyond Boshers each year.
"Our overall assessment for the James River is that the stock remains at historically low levels and is dependent on hatchery inputs," scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science wrote in a report last year.
Shad are anadromous, meaning they return to their native freshwater rivers to spawn, but spend most of their lives in the ocean off the East Coast. They, and closely related river herring, once migrated up the James and other rivers in such large numbers that one historian observed in 1705 that "it is almost impossible to ride through (the water) without treading on them."
As recently as the 1950s, they were the most valuable fishery in the Chesapeake. In recent decades, though, their spring spawning runs in most east coast rivers have fallen to historic lows. Overfishing, pollution, loss of habitat and the construction of dams that closed off historic spawning grounds have all contributed to the population collapse, scientists say.
States in the Bay region have worked to restore populations by stocking hatchery-reared shad, reducing pollution, removing dams and — on the Susquehanna River — ordering utilities to spend tens of millions of dollars on fish lifts or ladders to carry shad over hydroelectric facilities.