Exelon reaches agreement to restore fish in Susquehanna

David Weissman

Efforts to improve American shad and river herring populations in the Susquehanna River have increased thanks to a 50-year agreement announced on Monday by Exelon Generation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Holtwood Dam on the Susquehanna River including whitewater recreation area, Wednesday August 12, 2015. John A. Pavoncello - jpavoncello@yorkdispatch.com

Josh Tryninewski, a biologist for the state Fish and Boat Commission who manages the shad restoration effort, said the river's shad population has been declining since 2001 because of limited access to adequate spawning habitats.

Shad and river herring are returning to their spawning on the Susquehanna at their lowest numbers since the 1980s, according to Exelon's news release. The population peaked in 2001, when hundreds of thousands of shad and river herring passed Exelon's Conowingo Dam, but that number has dwindled to 1,500 shad and 1,000 herring per year.

The Conowingo Dam, which is located in Maryland, is one of four hydroelectric dams in the Susquehanna River. Each dam has passageways set up for fish to move past, but Tryninewski said shad and herring appear to have a difficult time finding the correct traffic flow.

The shad that are getting past the dams are healthy, he said, but the spawning levels are not at a high enough level to promote population growth.

Transport: Per the new agreement, Exelon will invest millions of dollars to improve its dam's fish passageways and transport up to 100,000 American shad and 100,000 river herring to their spawning grounds through a trap-and-transport program each year, according to the release.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking to restore 2 million shad and 4 million herring above the four dams.

Service spokeswoman Meagan Racey said negotiations began because Exelon will be seeking to renew its license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the next few years.

"These hydropowered facilities are required to have these long-term licenses," Racey said. "Usually, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a difference in improving conditions for fish passage."

Adaptive: Tryninewski said the agreement with Exelon is particularly encouraging because it has adaptive management strategies built into the contract.

"So if something isn't working, we can make adjustments accordingly instead of having to wait another 50 years to try again," he said. "The stage is set to make good progress."

Tryninewski said American shad are historically important for the Susquehanna as an important source of protein for early settlers. Ecologically, they're an important link in the marine food chain, he added. There has been a moratorium on harvesting shad from the Susquehanna River since the 1980s.

The agreement is similar to ones recently established at Holtwood Dam and York Haven Dam, Tryninewski said. The only dam on the river without such an agreement, Safe Harbor, has the best track record for fish passage, he added.

The agreement also reiterates American eel restoration efforts originally outlined in the Muddy Run Pumped Storage Facility license, according to the release. Eels will be trapped and transported upstream through at least 2030, after which a new structure will support passage.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com.