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Setting Fry Free

Educational program helps shad population rebound.

When students release their shad fry into the Potomac River each year, they often address the three-millimeter creatures by name:

“Goodbye Chad the Shad!” and “Bye Johnny. Be careful!”

The doting foster parents are students from 22 schools in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., who have hatched the baby fish in their classrooms as part of an 11-year-old environmental restoration project.

The program isn’t just about getting the children in touch with the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. It has virtually resurrected the shad population, which had zeroed out in the 1980s.

When the project began in 1995, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources caught  around 200 shad in an annual survey. In 2004, it caught 3,800.

SHAD, A TYPE OF herring, “at one time … were the most abundant and commercially important fish in the Chesapeake Bay and on the Potomac,” said Jim Cummins, a biologist with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin and one of the organizers of the shad restoration. “In the early 1800s on the Potomac, shad were contributing to more jobs than all of the herring fisheries in Canada and salmon fisheries in Scotland, which were really big at the time.”

Shad helped keep George Washington’s Mount Vernon viable in the late 1700s and were a staple for Civil War soldiers.

But students involved in the restoration have typically never heard of the fish and would sooner identify the word “fry” with McDonald’s than with the Potomac.

The culprits behind the shad’s demise: overfishing, pollution, and man-made dams, particularly the Little Falls Dam near Chain Bridge.

Like salmon, shad spend most of their lives in the ocean — ranging across the entire east coast of North America — and return to their freshwater homes to spawn. Unlike salmon, the shad cannot jump to overcome low obstacles.

In January 2000, the Army Corps of Engineers completed a fishway that allows shad to pass Little Falls.

Releasing the fry upstream — at the boat ramp near Old Angler’s Inn on April 28, for example — not only restores the population but conditions the fish to using the fishway to return home.

STUDENT PARTICIPANTS range from elementary to high school and learn about the shad’s history and its importance in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem using a curriculum designed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The Living Classrooms Foundation, an educational non-profit, provides assistance in the classroom and in the field.

“We just like to bring unique, interesting projects to kids in the classroom — stuff that kids would never get a chance to do,” said Stephanie Blades, outreach coordinator for Living Classrooms. “They’ve never seen the Potomac look like this.”

And while learning microbiology may be slow going at first, when students see their eggs hatch by the thousands, “They freak out,” Blades said.

Students have released more than 16 million fry since the project began. Six years after the first release, adult shad that had been marked with a chemical tracer were caught in the middle Potomac.

The first year’s fry — now two and three feet long — had returned.

Cummins admits that the restocking could have taken place without involving students. Of course, the damaging decline could take place again in the student’s lifetimes, too.

“Our environmental memories tend to be short-term,” he said.

For students like Gianna Sheffield, a fifth-grader at Waples Mill Elementary School in Oakton, Va., being a “shad mommy” will help prevent that from happening. Gianna saw plankton through a microscope, kept water at a constant temperature and acidity level, and watched her roe hatch.

Standing on the bank of the river, she got to see a bald eagle, which feeds on the shad — the sign of an ecosystem back in balance.

“It’s sort of a fry stocking fry project,” Cummins said. “I thought, ‘Well I’m going to be inspiring these kids,’ but the kids inspire me.”