Over the last decade, American shad abundance in the Potomac River has continued its consistent rise, driving the overall upward trend of shad abundance in the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy MTSOfan/Flickr
While shad spend most of their adult lives in the ocean, the anadromous fish migrate into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Since 2000, shad abundance in the Bay has increased from 9 percent of the goal to 41 percent of the goal, with the Potomac seeing the most consistent rise in returning shad. Between 2000 and 2013, shad abundance in the Potomac rose from 12.4 percent to 129.4 percent of the target. Scientists attribute this increase to a series of factors, including improvements in water quality; a resurgence in underwater grass beds; the installation of a fish passageway at Little Falls Dam; a moratorium on recreational shad harvest; stocking efforts that reprinted fish to the river and kick-started the population; and the overall suitability of the Potomac as shad habitat.
“While there are several factors behind the shad recovery in the Potomac River, improved water quality is the cornerstone,” said Jim Cummins, director for living resources at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) and co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s American Shad Indicator Action Team. “Without cleaner waters in the Potomac River, we would never have seen such a boost in returning shad. We’ve reached the sustainable fishery target for the river, but we are still working to achieve a more robust goal: to see the shad population healthy and fit, and to see the river run silver again. That’s not a ‘pristine river’ goal—that’s a goal we can achieve.”
The Bay Program tracks the abundance of shad in the James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna and York rivers as an indicator of watershed health. Collectively, these five waterways account for about 90 percent of the Bay’s shad population, and each has its own population target.
While shad abundance is relatively high in the Rappahannock River—reaching 92.7 percent of the target in 2012 but falling to 88.9 percent of the target in 2013—abundance remains negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna and variable in the lower James and York. Some variability is natural, but the continued scarcity of shad in the upper James and Susquehanna can be attributed to large dams that block fish passage and mute some of the natural cues that send migratory fish upstream.
Once one of the most valuable fisheries in the Bay, shad populations have declined in recent decades due to pollution, historic overfishing and the construction of dams that block the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. Commercial shad harvest is now closed across most of the region, and Bay Program partners are working to remove dams, install passageways that allow shad to reach upstream habitats and restock waterways with hatchery-raised fish. In addition, students in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia are raising shad and releasing them into the Potomac River, bringing public attention to the importance of the once-forgotten fish.
Overall, shad abundance in the Bay has increased from 8 percent of the goal in 2000 to 41 percent of the goal in 2013.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has launched a state-wide campaign to teach citizens about the impact of blue and flathead catfish and encourage anglers to remove the invasive species from local rivers and streams.
Native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins, blue catfish were introduced to the James, Rappahannock and York rivers in the 1970s and ‘80s as a sport fish. Flathead catfish were introduced to the James in the 1960s for the same reason. Over time, the natural movement and purposeful introduction of the fish into new waters have hastened their establishment in Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
This concerns scientists, who fear the fast-growing and long-lived blue catfish, in particular, could impact the region’s ecologic and economic resources. Because of its opportunistic feeding habits, the blue catfish has become an apex predator, disrupting the structure of the Bay ecosystem and eating up critical aquatic species.
Indeed, “gut content analyses” of the fish have found American shad, Atlantic menhaden, freshwater mussels and blue crabs in their stomachs. Peyton Robertson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office and chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, compared the blue catfish to a Bengal tiger, noting that the fish eats “just about anything.”
“If left unchecked, [blue catfish] could, as top predators, start to impact other parts of our ecosystem,” Robertson said.
But its eradication isn’t feasible, and experts believe the invasive fish is here to stay. So managers hope to mitigate their spread and minimize their impact on native fish.
With support from the Bay Program, DNR has established more than 150 signs at water access points and kiosks around the state to help anglers identify, catch and keep the species, while Maryland Seafood has escalated its efforts to market the fish to restaurants and boost consumer demand.
“[Humans] are great at overfishing things,” said Maryland Seafood Marketing Director Steve Vilnit. “And [the blue catfish] is a species that we want to overfish.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program has submitted a report to Congress outlining the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the effectiveness of the partnership’s management strategies.
Under Section 117(h) of the Clean Water Act, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must submit the report every five years in coordination with the Chesapeake Executive Council.
While the Bay remains in poor health, the report highlights several signs that indicate certain strategies will work to restore the treasured resource. The report notes, for instance, that the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and Executive Order 13508 have been integral in spurring collaboration among cities, states, federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations and citizens. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement that Bay Program partners plan to sign this summer will use clear goals and outcomes and increased transparency and accountability to continue this positive momentum.
“The… Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement is our preparation for the future—a future where the Chesapeake Bay watershed remains an economic engine for the region, rebuilds a thriving and diverse ecosystem and reclaims its status as a celebrated treasure for the citizens who live in the watershed and throughout the nation,” writes Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in the report.
Upgrading wastewater treatment technologies has lowered pollution in the Potomac, Patuxent and Back rivers, leading researchers to celebrate the Clean Water Act and recommend continued investments in the sewage sector.
Introduced in 1972, the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program regulates point sources of pollutants, or those that can be pinpointed to a specific location. Because wastewater treatment plants are a point source that can send nutrient-rich effluent into rivers and streams, this program has fueled advancements in wastewater treatment technologies. Biological nutrient removal, for instance, uses microorganisms to remove excess nutrients from wastewater, while the newer enhanced nutrient removal improves upon this process.
Researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) have linked these wastewater treatment technologies to a cleaner environment. In a report released last month, five case studies show that wastewater treatment plant upgrades in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia improved water quality in three Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
The link is clear: excess nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Lowering the amount of nutrients that wastewater treatment plants send into rivers and streams can reduce algae blooms, bring back grass beds and improve water quality.
In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists show that new technologies at Baltimore’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant led to a drop in nitrogen concentrations in the Back River. Upgrades at plants in the upper Patuxent watershed led to a drop in nutrient concentrations and a resurgence in underwater grasses in the Patuxent River. And improvements at plants in northern Virginia and the District lowered nutrient pollution, shortened the duration of algae blooms and boosted underwater grass growth in the Potomac River.
Image courtesy Kevin Harber/Flickr
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks wastewater permits as an indicator of Bay health. As of 2012, 45 percent of treatment plants in the watershed had limits in effect to meet water quality standards. But a growing watershed population is putting increasing pressure on urban and suburban sewage systems.
“Further investments in [wastewater treatment plants] are needed to reduce nutrient loading associated with an increasing number of people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” New Insights notes.