Biologists move shad upstream to spawn

After a four-year journey that has taken them thousands of miles, American shad that spawn in the Savannah River are getting some special assistance this year.

 

"Once they get this far, it's a shame if they're blocked from the last leg of their trip," said Amanda Meadows, a Nature Conservancy biologist who joined an unusual fish rescue project Tuesday.

The problem is New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, which separates the lower river from the rocky shoals above Augusta, where the migratory shad spawn.

Usually the lock gates are opened every few days during the spring, allowing roe-laden shad to swim upstream. In February, however, the lock valves failed -- and the gates are frozen shut.

On Tuesday, biologists from Georgia, South Carolina, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and The Nature Conservancy converged at the dam's tailrace, where they used boats, trucks and electricity to capture as many shad as possible. Altogether, they caught 362 shad.

"We're moving as many fish as we can from below the dam to above the dam," said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Tripp Boltin. "We want to give them a chance to spawn."

Boats rigged with steel cables attached to generators moved in slow circles, allowing electric current to briefly stun the fish. The twitching shad were then netted, placed in tanks and driven to a landing above the dam.

Then they were released.

Shad spend four years at sea before they mature and return to the river where they were hatched, Mr. Boltin said. Each female lays 100,000 or more eggs, of which only a handful might survive.

The fish once migrated by the millions up the Savannah. During the past century, however, dams and lakes eliminated 95 percent of their spawning habitat, which makes the remaining shoals above Augusta more critical than ever.

Tuesday's effort could allow at least some fish to complete their voyage, Mr. Boltin said.

The success won't be known for four years, when shad hatched in the river this year complete their tenure in the North Atlantic Ocean and return to Augusta to renew the cycle.

A poor spawn this year, Mr. Boltin said, will reduce the number of shad that return four years from now.

Reduced populations are a national concern because shad are important commercial species in Northern states, where they are harvested for roe.

Their spawning areas, however, range from Maine to Florida, and their habitat has declined in virtually every Eastern river.

Because of their wide impact on commercial fisheries -- and their value as forage fish for important offshore species such as tuna and codfish -- it is imperative that states, conservation groups and federal agencies work together to preserve the shad's remaining inland habitat, Dr. Meadows said.

"It takes a tremendous multiagency effort," she said. "It takes a village to raise a shad."

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

SHAD AND THE SAVANNAH RIVER

- The Savannah River's dwindling shad population spawns in the shoals above Augusta, but only a few fish can swim past New Savannah Bluff to get there.

- Shad hatched in our river swim out to sea and complete a 3,000-mile journey before returning to the same river four years later to spawn and die.

- Shad, which travel in huge schools to Canada and Iceland as they slowly mature, were a perennial food staple for Indian tribes and Colonial settlers in the Augusta area.

- In the 1700s, an estimated 10 million shad made the journey up the Savannah River each spring, where they migrated 300 miles inland, to Tallulah Falls.

- In the past century, dams eliminated 95 percent of the shoals spawning habitat, and today's migrations include only 200,000 to 300,000 fish.

- Estimates compiled in the 1980s indicated that fewer than 18,000 shad make it past New Savannah Bluff, even when locks were opened during spawning season.

- Biologists now believe the decline of shad and other forage fish is linked to declining populations of important food species, such as tuna, codfish and redfish.

- Efforts by federal and state agencies to improve shad reproduction in the Savannah are being duplicated in dozens of other East Coast rivers, in hopes of preventing their further decline.

Sources: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, The Nature Conservancy