Shad making a comeback in Nanticoke

By Ronald MacArthur

At one time shad fishing on the Nanticoke River was a rite of spring. According to Mike Stangl of Bridgeville, a fisheries biologist with the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, 800,000 pounds of American shad (also called white shad) was caught in 1896. In 1999, the total of shad caught was 93 pounds by a few commercial fishermen. The state placed a ban on harvesting of shad in 2000; Maryland had placed a restriction in 1980. "In 1999 a red flag went up," Stangl said. "When we closed it, we had a hearing and there was no opposition," he added. It's an understatement to say that the fishery has declined to near extinction on the Nanticoke River. Now, the Division of Fish and Wildlife is on a mission to re-establish shad. A shad hatchery has been established on the Nanticoke at the end of Red House Road outside of Bethel. It's there that Stangl and volunteer Jack Knowles of Woodland have been spending most of the last month - seven days a week. Stangl said the decline of the fish can be tied to several reasons: overfishing; habitat loss; and water quality in the 1970s and 1980s. Knowles, who has fished for shad since 1948 on the Nanticoke, added that overfishing by commercial trawlers off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean has also contributed to the demise of the fish in the river. "It seemed like when the rock started coming back, the shad started going," he added. "It was just a general steady decline. I attribute a lot of it to trawlers off the coast. It certainly wasn't in this Nanticoke, even though this is where the final destination point is." "Maryland has not seen any kind of comeback as far as the shad goes in this river, but what we have here from the state line on up, which Maryland has a limited amount of, is spawning grounds," Stangl said. "We have more freshwater up here than they have downstream and they need the freshwater. We are looking at the spawning grounds and not those waters below." The shad (averaging 3-4 pounds) is actually a salt water fish that only comes up the Nanticoke River and its tributaries in the spring to spawn. The shad need freshwater to spawn - they are anadromous. Once the spawning season is over, the fish return to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Knowles, who said his grandfather and great-grandfather also fished on the Nanticoke for shad, noted that he started to see a decline of the fish in the late 1970s. "It's strange too because during the mid-1970s was the best fishing for shad I've ever had - and most of that was right at Woodland believe it or not," he said. He said that there were as many as 50 fishermen who derived a good income from shad fishing in the early 1900s. They used large 200-yard haul seines that went from side to side across the river. "They fished the river pretty hard during those years," Knowles said. The new hatchery contains a large 15-foot, 4,000 gallon tank with 80 adult shad that have been spawning regularly. The fish were "caught" in Deep Creek (just below Concord Pond) in a raft using a high-tech electro-fishing technique. Knowles said that a small electric charge is placed in the water that temporarily stuns the fish. "It stuns them for just a few seconds, so you have to be quick," he said. "It's not stressful for them at all." They were transferred to a tank on a nearby trailer and transported to the hatchery.
The eggs are collected on a daily basis, placed in clear, aerated tanks, hatched and then released into Deep Creek and Broad Creek, two tributaries of the Nanticoke. The first major release of hatchery shad fry (about 116,000) took place on May 16 in Deep Creek. Stangl said that the division had been stocking the river with 250,000 fry donated by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, but these are first "home-grown" shad being stocked back into the river. Stangl said they had hoped to raise about 100,000 shad fry; they exceeded that number early in the project. He added that another 150,000 were ready to be released in the Broad Creek near Laurel or into the Nanticoke River. He has been releasing about 90,000 shad fry into the Nanticoke tributaries over the past four years. "Studies have shown the farther upstream you go the better the survival rate," Stangl said. At the close of the project on May 23, a total of 267,967 hatchery-grown shad fry had been released into the Nanticoke, according to Knowles. "And the really good news is that of the 84 shad we took out to spawn, we put 83 back into the river," he said. "We must have had the conditions just about right for them." Stangl said that the shad fry will slowly migrate down the Nanticoke and once they reach three inches in length will end up in the Chesapeake Bay. When they mature, they will join the adults in the ocean. Stangl designed and built the hatchery with help from Knowles, a retired Seaford DuPont employee. The total cost of the project was about $150,000 and it took him two years to design it. He said that he visited similar hatcheries in Maine and Maryland and modified the Nanticoke hatchery from the two designs. Water is pumped in from the Nanticoke River and the shad need circular water motion and low-light conditions inside the hatchery at all times. "They are very skittish fish and hard to raise," he added. Stangl had a lot of praise for Knowles. "He has helped with the pumps and set up of the hatchery and helped me to understand the life history of the shad - and doing it all as a volunteer," Stangl said. Knowles said that it has been a labor of love. "I've learned a lot about a fish that I thought I knew a lot about," Knowles said. In addition to the hatchery operation starting this year, Stangl said that the division has been keeping a watchful eye on the shad since 1999 by taking samples and doing assessments. He said that indications are that the shad population in the river is increasing. "This is the restoration process. We also do assessment. I have electro-fishing stations upstream that I have sampled every year since 2000 and that gives us an index of abundance. We can come up with a number that we catch per minute or per hour. The trend has been increasing each year which indicates the population is increasing." Since 1999 during the summer, he has used a haul seine anchored to shore to catch and release juvenile shad to also get an index. "That index has also shown an increase," Stangl said. The ultimate goal of the project is that the hatchery-reared shad will mature and return to spawn on their own. But it's a slow process. "We are still a few years away from that," Stangl said. Female shad spawn at four years of age; males at three years of age. It is also a goal of the project that the ban on harvesting can be lifted at some point in the future.

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