From the Editor: Swimming Upstream?

Restoring the shad fishery is an important symbol of hope.

One of the great joys of life is stealing a few minutes on the deck at home to watch the animals.

My perch, about 40 feet directly above the creek at the bottom of Brandywine Park, yields great views. Gulls, Canada geese and great blue herons are daily sights. When the tide is out, you can see snapping turtles and catfish in the creek as plain as day. Raccoons are common. And once in a while, I’m stunned to glimpse a red fox in the area.

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That there is wildlife of any sort may seem unusual, given that I live in the heart of Wilmington, a town built largely of concrete, brick, stone and macadam, just like any other. The air gets thick with vehicular exhaust. Stormwater runoff sheets off impermeable surfaces to pollute surface water supplies. The list of insults to Mother Nature continues.

The city isn’t exactly a wilderness, so the animals are a welcome reminder of the wild heart that beats deep underneath. We need that now and then.

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Which is why I must offer thanks to the Brandywine Conservancy, Wilmington officials, state and federal agencies, and (reluctantly) the DuPont Company. After several years of studying the feasibility of re-introducing American shad to the Brandywine, several thousand fry were released into the creek a few weeks ago.

The event, just days after Earth Day, passed with little notice, but it was, in my mind, significant; few of us even know what shad are, and we owe them our thanks; we may not have become the United States without them.

Here’s a crash course:

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With cod, shad sustained early colonists. If you believe local legend, they also saved General George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge. (An adult fish can weigh 8 pounds.)

Since time immemorial, the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers and their tributaries supported the largest populations on the Atlantic Seaboard. The fishery seemed inexhaustible—until pollution and overharvesting took their toll. By the early 20th century, the commercial fishery neared collapsed, though there are still a few old-time watermen in places like Port Penn who remember the spring shad run as a highlight of the year.

Shad, like salmon, live most of their lives at sea, then return to their native waterways to spawn. Locally, that journey was stymied by dams on the Brandywine, which had been built to ensure a steady supply of water to the mills that made the area so prosperous. So damming the creek also had a deleterious effect on the fish, as damming has on every major fish population on every major river in the East.

Experts believe that removing or altering the 11 dams on the Brandywine in Delaware will make it possible to restore the shad. The cost is estimated to be less than $3.5 million. Some federal grants have already been made. The creek has been stocked with shad fry. The challenge now is to cover the remainder of the costs.

Restoring the shad may seem a small thing. To some, it may even seem an exercise is wasteful government spending.

But there’s no denying that the ecosystems of large population areas are in dire straits (look at the cancer rates), and no one is going to fix them but us. Among the issues here in Delaware, there are restrictions on eating fish from every single waterway in the state. That hardly seems right. We’re no Galveston Bay or Mobile, Alabama, but we’re up there.

We permit a lot of pollution from industrial sources by not asking legislators or regulators to be more vigilant. We do more damage in our daily lives than we ever realize. Indeed, we wouldn’t know how to survive without the products of heavy industry.

Yet we can reverse the tide. Thirty years ago, the Delaware River was so poor in oxygen and so high in heavy metals that few fish could survive in it. Today, thanks to better environmental controls, the Atlantic sturgeon, king of the aquatic food chain, has rebounded from what was once thought to be the verge of extinction. That bodes nothing but good for us humans.

So in my humble opinion, we should pursue any reasonable chance of restoring some balance to compromised ecosystems.

With any luck, when today’s shad fry return from the Atlantic four or five years from now, they’ll have smooth swimming. If they make it, other important links in the chain will follow.

And we’ll have far richer walks in the park.


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