By Daniel White
Every spring, American shad embark upon an epic journey rivaling that of migratory birds. The shad leave coastal ocean waters to enter the Chesapeake Bay and swim up tributaries such as the James and Potomac rivers to spawn.
Many will perish, but the survivors will head back downstream and, by summer, return to the ocean. In early fall, young shad will follow in their parents’ fin strokes to the sea. Years later, they, too, will migrate back to the bay watershed to carry on the spawning cycle.
“They’re the salmon of the East,” says Mark Bryer, director of the Chesapeake Bay Initiative. Bryer is a shad fan. His face lights up as he recounts catching and releasing a 20-incher in the Potomac River one early morning before work.
Bryer also appreciates the fish’s role in the ecology and economy of the Chesapeake Bay environs, and he laments its disappearance from parts of the watershed, including the Pennsylvania creek he fished as a kid.
Bryer enjoys fond memories of childhood summers fishing in Conodoguinet Creek, which flows into the Susquehanna River, which in turn supplies more fresh water than any other river to the Chesapeake.
But in his youth, Bryer remained blissfully unaware of these larger connections—and lurking threats. “The stream I grew up on and fished every day in the summer was my place; it was the place I knew,” Bryer says. “But I didn’t know there should’ve been shad in that stream and there weren’t.”
The Chesapeake is a relatively shallow body of water fed by rivers and streams branching out like blood vessels into Maryland and Virginia, then beyond into West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York. More than 16 million people live in this watershed, with another 3 million projected by 2020.
Bryer sums up the crux of the issue: “Can these 16 million people still live in this watershed—still lead enjoyable and profitable lives—and can we have natural diversity in our nation’s largest estuary?”
Launched in 2004, the Conservancy’s Chesapeake Bay Initiative works in all six states to foster creative solutions to this complex challenge. With so many partners working to reduce pollution and improve the bay’s health, where can the Conservancy make a difference?
Land conservation, for starters. The Conservancy has helped conserve more than 160,000 acres in the watershed—places like the Virginia Coast Reserve and Dragon Run, Maryland’s Nassawango Creek and Nanticoke River.
“We’ve invested for the long haul to make a difference on the ground,” says Bryer. “With additional actions like oyster, stream and wetland restoration, we’re looking to further enhance diversity.” The Conservancy also offers leadership in addressing future problems, including new development and climate change.
“The Chesapeake represents one of those test cases we face as a human society,” says Bryer, summing up the challenge. “Can we find a way both to live here and to conserve this resource? Despite all the setbacks over the last 20 years, I believe we can.”
As the ultimate symbol of that success, what would be more fitting than the return of the American shad to its former territory? “I would love to see this fishery restored and shad back in the stream where I grew up,” Bryer says. “I hope to see the day when I can take my sons fishing there.""June 27, 2011
Daniel White is a senior conservation writer for the Conservancy in Virginia.