How Much Have We Lost?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Shadding on the Potomac

Me, Rob Hartwell, Del. Jackson Miller, Jackson, Jr., the Harley
Brothers & Family, Delegate David Ramadan, and Jim Cummins
On Monday, May 12, 2014, I was lucky to tag along with Biologist Jim Cummins and his crew to help restore Virginia's Shad runs.  His work is funded by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basis, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries via funds made available from the Environmental Protective Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery near Hopewell.

We shoved off from Mason Neck just before high tide around 6:00 p.m. with skiffs operated by the Harley Brothers - Brad and Mike.  The brothers are the last two licensed commercial fisherman who operate out of Fairfax County.  They fifth generation Fairfax County fishermen and their family has a long history on Mason Neck and they know this stretch of River like the back of their hands.

Panorama shot of the "Mother" Ship
where we processed the fish.
Our crew consisted of myself, Delegate Jackson Miller, his son Jackson, Jr., Delegate David Ramadan, Jim Cummins, Mason Neck native Rob Hartwell, the Harley Brothers, their long-time co-fisherman Rusty Zuppello, and a four-person crew from Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.  The fishing crew ran in two boats which DGIF manned the "mother ship" where the fish would be processed.



Jim Cummins led a discussion on the history of the Shad in Virginia and the Potomac.  Fishing was a significant industry on the Potomac River.  Native American populations had fishing operations which served as a significant source of protein.  George Washington operated a fishery as part of his farming operations.  He even showed us pictures of a six-mile-long net that was used to commercially harvest Potomac fish, including shad, around the turn of the century.

American Shad
The shad are essentially the East Coast's salmon.  The destruction of Virginia's and the East Coast's shad runs are partly unknown.  It is suspected that they were eventually destroyed by over fishing, pollution, and dams.  However, today they are starting to return.  This article has a good explanation of the history.

On this trip, the objective was to capture "ripe" shad and harvest their roe and sperm to enhance their reproduction and export Potomac shad to the Rappahanock River.  In 2004, the Embrey Dam was removed on the Rappahannock River restoring runs of eel, shad and other fish.

The shad tend to run in April, but were "late" this year - probably because of the unusual weather.  The shad "run" upriver to spawn.  A mature female spawns several times over several days.  Reproductive rates are very low given that the fish eggs and sperm are not exactly concentrated floating around in the bottom of the river.

Jackson, Jr. lays net with Jim Cummins
Around 6:30 p.m. we began dropping four 300 foot nets into the River about 100 yards offshore from the Belvoir Officers Club in the channel.  The nets are prepped for release in buckets earlier in the day.  Launching them is a two person operation as once person feeds the net and the other person lays the buoys.  The nets have to be dropped just at high tide when the river sits still to minimize the problems created by the movement generated by a tidal current.

Our nets suspended from orange buoys
The nets are suspended about five feet underwater by a series of buoys so they can't be struck by smaller motor boats.  When it's dark, the Harley Brothers lay white jugs with glow sticks to around boat strikes.

Once suspended, the net hang down another 20-25 feet underwater.  Larger fish are caught as they swim through it and become stuck in the net.  Once fish strike the net, the buoys begin to dive and the nets begin to move around.

One of the four gars we caught.
After about an hour, we pulled the nets back in.  The majority of fish that came out were American shad, but we also caught Hickory Shad, Blue Catfish, Striped Bass or Rockfish, and four Gars (creepy looking prehistoric fish).  Smaller fish swim right through.  Some larger fish - like snakeheads - stay out of the channel.  Other fish aren't running this time of year.  By the end of the night, we had probably taken over 100 shad out of the River - mostly females, but a few bucks.  

Delegate Jackson Miller
Keeping stats on our catch.
After the fish are removed from the nets, they are separated and logged one at a time depending upon whether they are still loaded with roe, damaged (scaled removed) or dead, male/female.  Unlike catfish or carp, herring (shad are a species of herring) need to move to "breathe" so they basically swim constantly and never sleep.

The male fish are kept alive so that the sperm remains potent.  In our boat, Jim and the Harley brothers removed the fish from the net - it was tricky work.  Jackson and I did the "hard" work - counting up the catch for later tabulation and analysis back at the lab.


Sperm is harvest from a male into
already harvested roe.
Then we transfer the fish to the DGIF boat where the roe is harvested into large silver mixing bowls.  Once together, it looks like apple sauce.

Then, the male shad sperm is added. That looks like dots of sour cream.  After it is mixed together, river water is poured into to active the eggs which then swell up like small bb's and they are run through a strainer into a container to be shipped to either a hatchery or one of dozens of classrooms around Virginia where students watch the fish hatch and grow before releasing them.

According to Cummins, our activities enhance the shad's reproduction by about 95x (e.g. typically 2 in 100 eggs will reproduce, but in our activity it rises to about 95 in 100).  Out of the fish we create about 1 in 300 will make it back from the Atlantic based on counts made at the fishlifts on the Susquehanna River.

According to DGIF's Eric Brittle (who also helps put on the Wakefield Shad Planking), our trip that night was the most successful this year.  We collected 30 liters of eggs which is equal to about 900,000 eggs which will result in 450,000 shad fry going into the Rappahanock River next week.

The hope is that by conducting these activities, shad runs can eventually be restored in Virginia to help restore a balanced ecosystem and return the shad runs to economically viable fishery.  The Potomac River's populations appear to be reaching a point of sustainability.

The entire project highlights some really excellent and important work being done by the ICPRB and Virginia's DGIF that few people in Northern Virginia realizes goes on.  I hope that the residents of the 44th District and the broader area can all reap the benefits of this work in the near future.

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