Dams, hydroelectricity part of plans

THOMPSONTOWN – The shad reintroduction program has been ongoing since 1976, with more than 276,000,000 fry having been stocked in Susquehanna River Basin waters. However, this number tells only part of the story. The long-term survivability rate for fry released into the wild is approximately 1 in 400. The factors involved in their overall survivability are many, including predators, water pollution, commercial harvesting in the ocean, and, perhaps most importantly, dam blockage.

There are four hydroelectric power plants on the lower Susquehanna River, with the three in Pennsylvania being important suppliers of energy to state residents. However, fisheries biologist Josh Tryninewski, of the Van Dyke Research Station in Juniata County, said the dams at these sites do prevent the majority of adult shad from reaching their historic spawning grounds.

“Our hope was, open the rivers and the fish would do their thing,” Tryninewski said. “That hasn’t materialized.”

The shad count the yearly count of shad that have negotiated the dams on the lower Susquehanna and made it upstream has been consistently low in recent years. In 2014, the counts ranged from 10,425 on Conowingo Dam (at River Mile 10) to only eight for York Haven (the farthest up).

Tryninewski stressed the point that these power plants have been active partners in the process to increase shad passage.

“The power companies have been a cooperator throughout the entire process. They’ve sat down to negotiate with natural resource agencies and have built fish ladders and fish lifts at the dam sites.”

Still, the results have not been all that satisfactory. Only about 30 percent of the shad that pass Conowingo Dam make it past Holtwood, the next dam up on the river. Safe Harbor Dam passes about 75 percent of fish that have made it above Holtwood. York Haven Dam has the poorest performance with only 5 to 10 percent of fish coming from Safe Harbor making it above the dam.

“It is disappointing,” Tryninewski admitted. “The fish lifts don’t function as well as hoped. And the main water current coming over the dams confuses the fish. Spawning shad home in on the main water flow to make their way upstream. A traction flow is coming down the water lift, but it often isn’t enough to redirect the fish. The shad will simply keep trying to get upstream to their spawning grounds until they exhaust themselves.”

He said that high spring flow on the spillway side can also disorient the fish. However, there are some positives. Fifty percent of the fish that don’t make it above the dams head back out to sea and will return to spawn another time. Tryninewski pointed out that the ones that do make it above the dams, move quickly. He said that several years ago American Shad were radio tagged at Conowingo Dam in Maryland and released. Within days, four were tracked to Sunbury and several to the Juniata River.

Despite the problems associated with shad reaching their spawning grounds, Tryninewski is optimistic about the restoration project’s future. Two of the four power plants on the Susquehanna within Pennsylvania, York Haven and Holtwood, are going through license renewal, something they need in order to continue operation. During the re-licensing process, natural resource agencies have been able to negotiate fish passage performance measures with York Haven and Holtwood. These measures include access to timely and effective passage to upstream spawning areas for the shad.

“That’s a huge thing,” Tryninewski said. “Basically, these plants are making modifications to enhance shad passage.”

Safe Harbor power plant is up for recertification in 2030 and similar negotiations are expected to be held with its owners. Tryninewski again stressed the importance of the partnership between government and industry.

“It has to be a balanced approach,” he said.

Finally, one aspect of a successful shad reintroduction program may be an unlooked for windfall for area anglers. The American Shad is known as a fighting fish when hooked, and during the spring run the fish are known to go after shad darts and similar lures. With the fish reaching lengths up to 21 inches, it is not hard to imagine spring anglers becoming some of the biggest fans of the shad and among the strongest advocates of a healthy shad population in central Pennsylvania waters.