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Nonprofit: American shad on brink of collapse in James River

Nonprofit: American shad on brink of collapse in James River

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NORFOLK — American shad, often referred to as the “founding fish” for its historical and cultural significance, is on the verge of collapsing in the James River, according to an organization that has been tracking the fish for years.

The fish’s population levels are now the lowest ever recorded, The Virginian-Pilot reports, citing the James River Association’s State of the James report, which is released every two years.

“It really is pretty dire,” Association CEO Bill Street told the newspaper. “It’s something that’s alarming to us. We don’t want to lose American shad and all that it has represented.”

The shad’s population has been dropping for decades due to dams blocking the 340-mile river, the rise in population of invasive catfish, which eat young fish, and the prevalence of fishing in the river.

Shad has been a dietary staple of those living in its habitats for hundreds of years. During the Revolutionary War it was dubbed the “savior fish” that sustained the American army through the winter of 1778, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Street told The Virginian-Pilot that the shad’s population is threatened throughout its habitat along the Atlantic Ocean but the problem is particularly bad in the James. The fish population has rebounded in similar rivers such as the Potomac and Rappahannock.

Conservationists have attempted to revitalize the shad’s numbers. From the 1990s to 2017, the state stocked the James with almost 126 million shad, which were raised in a hatchery.

“But as you can see, it didn’t work,” said the James River Association’s program director, Shawn Ralston.

The association is now demanding that state officials form an emergency plan to revive the species.

The State of the James report also shows that heavy rains in 2018 pushed more pollutants into the river, delaying efforts to contain them.

The association’s overall grade for the river is a B-minus, unchanged from the last report in 2019. The river’s numerical score changed from 63% to 61%. The score is based on more than a dozen factors, including the abundance of various fish species, underwater grass habitat and water quality.

Since 2010, Virginia and other Chesapeake Bay states have been federally mandated to lower pollution from sediment and nutrients that hasten harmful algae growth, The Virginian-Pilot reported. The states were given a deadline of 2025 to have pollution-control measures in place that would restore the bay.

The sediment mainly comes from agriculture and is the river’s main source of pollution, Ralston said. Climate change will likely lead to increased rainfall and because of that, Ralston said, state officials will have to increase restoration measures. The benchmarks to measure river health are coordinated with state officials and have been raised to anticipate the effects of climate change, Street said.

For copyright information, check with the distributor of this item, The Virginian-Pilot.

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