- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

ON THE BANKS OF THE RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER — Students from Holy Cross Academy of Fredericksburg, Va., got a lesson about a different type of school here yesterday.

More than 40 sixth-graders helped state and federal officials stock about 400,000 American shad fry fish into the largest open riverway on the East Coast.

The event was a joint effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to bolster the population of what was once the most plentiful fish in the area.

It also gave the students from Holy Cross a chance to learn about the environment — and escape the confines of the classroom for a day.

“We learned more about the shad and you get to come down to the river,” said Claire Winkler, 12, as she stood near a truck that held thousands of the fish in a large container.

Three students at a time carried buckets containing the tiny fry to the river’s banks at the Kelly’s Ford landing and slowly poured the fish into the water. Later, officials funneled the rest of the fry through a hose into the river.

Officials hope the anadromous fish — which spend their adult lives in the ocean but return to freshwater to spawn — will spend the summer in the Fredericksburg area before migrating to the Atlantic Ocean in October.

The shad are expected to return to the river three to five years later to spawn, boosting the population of what was the most important fish species in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries from Colonial times until the 1930s.

“Economically, it was the most important fin fish species,” said Michael C. Odom, a fishery biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. “There’s a commercial perspective there, recreational value and an ecological value — they were once a critical link between ocean and freshwater [systems].”

Overfishing and the loss of spawning habitat contributed to the crash in American shad populations in the area. By 1980, Maryland closed all shad fisheries in the state. Virginia did the same in 1994.

Now, a Baywide moratorium on harvesting American shad, combined with stocking efforts that put nearly 5 million of the fish in the Rappahannock and the Hazel River — near Rixeyville, Va. — during the past two years, have officials preparing for a rebound.

“These [stockings] alone would be enough if the remnant stock were a decent size,” Mr. Odom said. “But the numbers are very low. We’re seeing very few American shad make it to the Fredericksburg area.”

The Embrey Dam was another obstacle that prevented shad from returning to the upper Rappahannock and its tributaries to spawn. Built in 1910, the dam was demolished in February 2004 at a cost of $10 million, and officials said the 83 miles of upstream spawning grounds created by the dam’s removal are worth the cost.

“It’s some great historical habitat for these fish,” said Tom Gunter, a fisheries biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and coordinator of the American Shad Restoration program. “With this restocking project, we’re hoping to get a magic number of 50 [fish] per acre.”

Holy Cross students said yesterday’s stocking provided them with valuable lessons.

“Knowing there’s not that many [shad] now, it makes us want to help and conserve,” said Sam Thomas, 11.

Their teachers said they hoped the experience would impart another lesson on the youngsters, too.

“They’re little fish in a big pond,” said Dorathy Winkler. “But they’re doing something important.”

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