Shad Resurgence Marks a Cleaner Delaware River

Tara Nurin | September 24, 2012 | Energy & Environment
But other rivers in the state still face daunting cleanup efforts

American shad were once so common that East Coast rivers were described as being “black” and “boiling” as tens of millions of fish migrated upstream each spring to spawn. Today, approximately 98 percent of the fish that formed a staple of the Colonial diet have been depleted. In rivers once teeming with shad, a daily catch is sometimes counted in the single digits.

“One day you’re going to catch 60 shad and the next day you’re catching none,” said Middlesex resident Andy Still. A catch-and-release fisherman, Still is one of 70,000 recreational anglers who annually fish the Delaware River, by far the most popular source for shad in New Jersey.

Still’s observation helps explain why the public officials who oversee the Mid-Atlantic fisheries are intensifying their efforts to restore the shad population. In New Jersey, they’re working in tandem with environmentalists who hope to rehabilitate not just shad, but the network of rivers, bays, streams, and marshes that make up this region’s watershed.

Shad — the name comes from the Latin, Alosa sapidissima, meaning “most delicious, or savory, herring” — are just one part of this larger effort, but a critical part. The fish is considered a marker for the overall health of the rivers and tributaries that flow into the Atlantic Ocean. As the shad population increases, the presence of other aquatic life increases as well. It’s an elegantly simple equation: more shad equals cleaner water, cleaner water equals more shad.

And that, in turn, is an indicator of an increasingly stable ecosystem.

Protecting the Fisheries

This year, several federal and collaborative state agencies are advancing policies to protect shad fisheries. On January 1, 2013, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) will enact a moratorium on shad fishing in New Jersey waters until the state can prove the population has reached sustainable levels.

Credit: Chris Filosa
Andy Still, a catch-and-release shad fisherman on the Delaware River.

The Delaware River has already established its sustainability and is thus exempt from the moratorium.

Sometime in the next several months, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC), a federal body charged with establishing ocean management protocols from New York to North Carolina, will begin studies and public hearings on whether to impose limits on the amount of shad — and river herring, another migratory fish — that can be inadvertently caught and killed while trawlers are fishing for other species.

These potential restrictions come as the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and its civilian environmental-advocacy partners are celebrating the removal of fish-blocking dams from rivers and furthering the cleanup of contaminated waters and banks that are, for the first time in a century, welcoming fishing and recreational use.

Historical Comparisons

Despite the resurgence of shad in the Delaware River, their numbers are not expected to reach pre-20th century levels, when the Delaware supported 25 million to 50 million shad. From its peak in 1899, the population dropped to almost zero between 1950 and 1955. River cleanup efforts and a hurricane in 1955 helped the population begin to climb. In 1990 it reached 500,000 then plummeted again, until a few years ago. It’s been hovering around 200,000 ever since.

In the world of depleted fish populations, stabilization is cause for celebration.

“Shad aren’t doing well in a lot of systems, but the Delaware doesn’t have that problem,” said Russ Allen, a biologist with the state Bureau of Marine Fisheries, who recorded comparatively high birthrates in 2005, 2007, and 2011. The 2005 numbers held up in adult population counts five years later, when the fish returned to the Delaware to spawn after spending their early years in the ocean.

Allen’s sense is that the Delaware is faring better than other waterways in part because, as the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi, it lacks the common barricades that keep shad from their spawning habitats. He also credits the stabilization of the striped bass population, which feed on shad. Also contributing to shad stabilization are the targeted environmental efforts that began in the middle of the last century.

Despite all of this progress, however, six of the eight migratory (or diadromous) fish that spawn in the Delaware are threatened or endangered.

Midwater Trawling

While no one can pinpoint exactly why shad populations dropped so precipitously after 1990, some environmentalists blame a modern form of commercial fishing called midwater trawling.

Midwater trawlers travel the ocean dragging nets opponents say rival the size of football fields, either behind one 125-foot boat or between two. While trawlers in the Mid-Atlantic aren’t allowed to fish for shad, their nets ensnare everything in their path, entangling what the Herring Alliance environmental coalition says are 115,000 pounds of shad “bycatch” per year, which dies in the mesh. Four of the dozen-or-so trawlers that fish Mid-Atlantic waters are berthed in Cape May, while the rest sail out of New England.

“These boats in one single tow can catch more fish than are returning to entire states,” alleged Kristen Cevoli of The Pew Charitable Trusts Environmental Group, which participates in the Herring Alliance.

But a DEP report released in May states, “There is undoubtedly some bycatch discard loss, especially for male shad, but there is no data as to the severity of this bycatch,” said Jeff Kaelin, government relations and fisheries management coordinator for the trawler-owning Lund Fisheries in Cape May . He adds that there’s no data to support claims that his industry is decimating the population and admits that while there is a problem with river herring bycatch, the trawlers’ impact on shad is minimal.

“We just don’t have that much interaction with shad,” he said, noting that his boats aren’t currently trawling New Jersey’s waters at times when catching massive amounts of shad would be likely. “115,000 pounds is nothing, when considering we can take 90,000 metric tons of Atlantic herring per year.”

In June, the fishery management council passed Amendment 14, requiring all squid, mackerel, and butterfish trawlers to travel with federal monitors who can count the size of the bycatch. Scientists are expected soon to begin figuring out how to implement limits on shad and river herring bycatch in order to raise their protected status under a proposed Amendment 15.

Kaelin says he and his associates are willingly complying with Amendment 14 and notes that his company is minimizing river herring bycatch in New England by using an electronic system, partially funded and developed by his company that sends real-time bycatch information to a coastal Massachusetts science center, which then maps river herring clusters and instructs ship captains on how to avoid them.

But it’s not just midwater trawlers. Historic overfishing is also blamed, as is dirty industry that pollutes watersheds.

Hydraulic Fracturing

In Pennsylvania, the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” method of natural gas extraction is categorized by some as one of those industries. It’s one that’s being actively opposed by the Delaware River Shad Fisherman’s Association, which drafted a lengthy shad restoration plan earlier this year. While a moratorium that expires in four months makes hydraulic fracturing illegal in New Jersey, which isn’t known to have exploitable deposits of shale gas, the process is used in Pennsylvania. Most fracking in that state occurs west of the Delaware River Basin, though there’s currently a hotly debated moratorium on the practice that could be lifted as soon as the Delaware River Basin Commission reschedules a vote on whether to issue regulations concerning hydraulic fracturing within its jurisdiction.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found a link between fracking and groundwater pollution, and DRSFA president Charlie Furst says one of the main problems with using the process near rivers is that it’s happening too fast to measure and prepare for side effects . The Delaware River is still tainted by earlier industry, to the extent that there is an advisory limiting consumption of fish taken in its waters to no more than three meals a month.

Specifically, Furst is concerned about the industry’s ability to properly treat all of the toxic wastewater that hydraulic fracturing generates before it’s released into the environment. The water accumulates in on-site settling ponds and some of it is shipped to water purification plants. But fracking wastewater takes a long time to purify and there aren’t many facilities that can do it. Furst says that although the industry is adopting more sophisticated storage and treatment techniques, he believes wastewater is getting spilled or inadequately treated. And for shad and other Delaware River species, the impact could be catastrophic.

Nonetheless, when Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection tested seven rivers (not including the Delaware) downstream of facilities that treat fracking wastewater in 2010, it found radioactivity to be at safe levels. The Energy from Shale website, sponsored by 40 energy, chemical, and pro-business organizations, states, “Though there have been no reported problems in using municipal sewage treatment facilities for wastewater disposal, many members of the public are uneasy about processing wastewater in this way. Thus we have seen increased use of specialized treatment facilities and increased wastewater recycling/reuse. Recycling/reuse has the additional benefit of reducing water needs and can be a key enabler for large-scale future developments.”

Removing Dams

At the same time that Furst is working to keep fracking from the Delaware River Basin, he’s also pushing for the elimination of two dams on the Lehigh River tributary that impede migratory fish.

“Every single tributary to the Delaware River is dammed or was to the point that the fish that would go there no longer exist,” he said. “There is an effort to remove dams on the various rivers.”

Dams were commonly built in the 19th and early 20th centuries for energy production. Though most of them have no use today, they litter the waterways, keeping shad and other migratory fish from swimming upriver to spawn. (Shad can swim hundreds of miles before spawning.)

Rescuing the Raritan River

Dams are a particular problem on the Raritan River and its tributaries, with hundreds in place. The closest dam to the mouth of the Raritan is located just 20 miles from the Raritan Bay, with two more located less than 10 miles upriver. Thanks in part to these dams, the shad count in the largest river in the state is almost negligible.

But it’s not just the dams. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Raritan was polluted by the industrial sites and military arsenals that lined its banks.

“Twenty-two years ago, the river still caught fire,” said Bob Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association. “Everybody looked at the river as a place to dump your waste. For a very long time people said it was a dead river.”

“American Cyanamid used to dump all their dyes in the river. It used to run red,” remembered Still, who grew up near the defunct chemical company in Bridgewater, located along the Raritan. “Now there are all these kayak trips and people are building houses and docks along there. Oh yeah, it fires me up. It’s just mind-blowing.

Still’s enthusiasm is shared by the environmental advocates who made it happen.

Spiegel, who says the Raritan is being used for recreation by a record number of people, names the restoration of shad as a priority for his organization. Over the past two decades, his association has worked with the DEP to vastly reduce the amount of contaminants that leak from “dozens and dozens” of industrial and postindustrial sites along the lower banks of the river. He feels water quality has improved so tremendously that he and his cleanup partners are ready to encourage the establishment of green businesses and a river tourism industry in the communities that dot the lower Raritan.

“These fish are coming back: herring, eel, smelt, striped bass . . . All of these are very important, as they’re going to have a direct impact on the ability of the estuary to come back,” he said. “First and foremost, they’ll be major economic force in this area, where there can be billions and billions of dollars spent to fish. It’s a very scenic area and they will stimulate economies when people come to buy bait and tackle and patronize the amenities that are here.”

A Holistic Approach

Spiegel is looking eagerly toward Woodbridge, where under the terms of a Natural Resources Damage legal settlement, El Paso Corp. (acquired by Kinder Morgan in May), is remediating a brownfield site that will become a 70-acre commercial property abutted by 110 acres of passive recreational land, including wetlands. He says it’s the first time in 100 years that residents of Woodbridge will be able to access the river. Spiegel adds that it’s the first time in history that New Jersey officials are taking a holistic, rather than site-specific, approach to planning and promoting the lower Raritan.

The NRD settlement has also resulted in another major accomplishment for advocates of the river: El Paso/Kinder Morgan is removing the Raritan’s three most downstream dams, located by the borough of Raritan, where fish have their last chance to prepare to leave the fresh water of the river before entering the brackish Raritan Bay on their way to the ocean. The first of the dams was removed last year; the second in July; the third is slated for demolition next year.

It’s a significant triumph for those who work toward the health of the state’s waterways, and it’s creating momentum for others to do the same. For instance, the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association is working on the design, engineering, and permitting phase of their own dam removal projects at the mouth of the Millstone River in Somerset County, which joins the Raritan where the former Calco and Robert Street dams stood until El Paso removed them.

Climbing the Ladder

Elsewhere on the river, scientists are striving to measure the efficacy of an existing fish ladder — a gap in a dam the size of a doorway designed to let fish and a small amount of water pass through. Ladders like this are an alternative when it’s not feasible to remove a dam.

Some fish ladders in the United States have been found to work better than others, and there’s concern that because this particular ladder, built into the 30-meter Island Farm weir near the intersection of the Millstone and Raritan rivers, is positioned at river’s edge. Its location makes it easier for the ladder to get filled with gravel and prevent adequate water flow for the fish to find it.

The DEP and Rutgers University are working jointly to measure the number of shad and river herring that successfully navigate the ladder. The DEP has installed video cameras just upstream and downstream of the weir to watch the fish in action, while Rutgers marine biologist Olaf Jensen is enlisting the help of students to tag fish as they make their way from the Raritan Bay to the ladder. In a procedure he calls “E-ZPass for Fish,” Jensen and his team implant microchips — like those used to find lost pets — into the fish they catch then track them as they pass an antenna located at the dam.

Funded by an $80,000 DEP grant, Jensen didn’t gather much actionable evidence during the first of two monitoring seasons, catching only one shad and 54 river herring, some of which he admits may have given up their migration because of the stress of the implantation.

“In the first year of the project it was hard to find out anything about American shad because there seem to be so few of them,” he said.

The project marks one of the first undertaken under the guidance of the Sustainable Raritan River Initiative, a Rutgers-led coalition that brings together 120 individual researchers, environmental groups, and local governments to find solutions for the river’s problems. They’ve written a strategic plan for the region that strongly advocates the pursuit of land preservation as a means to restore river recreation and fisheries.

The group first met with the DEP in October 2010 to emphasize the importance of removing rather than repairing dams no longer in active use. They found a receptive audience. The DEP subsequently accepted the group’s guidelines for removing the first of what may eventually become many dams that block shad from accessing their spawning habitats.

The dam removals are helping catalyze a deeper appreciation for the river among the residents who inhabit the town that’s become ground zero in the contemporary movement to bring shad back to the Raritan River. Just as the townspeople of Lambertville established the now-famous Shad Festival in 1980 to celebrate the Delaware River’s return to health, the borough of Raritan is hosting its first river festival on September 30.