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Shad Swim Up White Clay Creek for First Time Since 1777

Dr. Gerald J. Kauffman/University of Delaware Water Resources Center
School of American shad/hickory shad at White Clay Creek near Newark USGS Gage at 4:17 pm on April 18, 2015

Dozens of dark shapes gliding through White Clay Creek would have been easily overlooked by nearby golfers unless they were aware of the historical, environmental, and cultural significance of what was passing by their greens.

The creatures were shad, a formerly abundant species of fish whose advance guard swam along a stretch of the creek near Delaware Park Racetrack on April 18 for the first time since 1777.

Their return after a hiatus of 238 years was prompted by the partial removal of the Hale-Byrnes dam which was completed the year after the Declaration of Independence by a local mill owner who wanted to divert creek water for a mill race.

The dam was dismantled last December after more than two centuries of preventing the shad reaching their ancestral spawning grounds upstream in the 35-mile creek.

“They live in the Atlantic Ocean for five or six years and they come back to the rivers of their birth to spawn,” said Dr. Jerry Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Agency, and leader of the dam-removal project.

The removal, the first such project in Delaware, was intended to reintroduce a fish that has played an important role in the state’s ecology and culture and to meet the open-water requirements of the federal government which in 2000 designated White Clay Creek as a Wild and Scenic River.

While the shad had been seen for years massing at the foot of the dam on their way inland,  there was no guarantee they would venture further upstream if the barrier was removed.

But the sighting of more than 100 of the fish swimming under a bridge a short distance from the White Clay Creek Country Club was a resounding vote of confidence for a project that took three years and cost about $200,000 in funding by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation; the Fish America Foundation, and American Rivers.

“It’s evidence that the quality of the streams and the habitat of the streams are improving,” said Kauffman. “The quality of the water is now good enough that we can now start thinking about reintroducing the native fish populations.”

The improved water quality reflects the success of the Clean Water Act of 1972, which

improved the condition of the Delaware River so that fish could make their way up the Christina River, and then into the White Clay Creek, Kauffman said.

He spoke last Tuesday to around a dozen environmentalists and other guests at the dam site, where the rain-swollen waters of the creek poured through a 45-foot gap between the two ends of the colonial structure.

The turbid water prevented any view of the fish, or anything else, beneath the surface but that didn’t stop Kauffman celebrating the success of the first stage of a multi-year project to remove all seven dams on the creek.

“The American shad are an iconic species,” he told Delaware Public Media. “They were part of the culture back in the 19th century. It’s a symbol of the past coming back.”

Some historians have argued that shad even helped sustain the American Revolution by feeding George Washington’s soldiers camped at Valley Forge in 1777-78, despite the efforts of British troops to prevent the fish swimming upstream.

Meanwhile, environmentalists have welcomed the project as a chance to restore the natural order.

Rick Mickowski, a conservation planner and education coordinator with New Castle Conservation District, said the project helps to improve overall environmental quality which in turn assists his organization achieve its goals such as flood control and stream-bank restoration.

Mickowski, who was among those who visited the dam site on Tuesday, said his organization was not involved in funding the removal project, but “wholeheartedly” welcomes it as a step toward restoring the natural condition creek.

“The removal of the dam will allow the shad to move upstream to where they historically would have spawned,” he said.

When the dam was removed, Kauffman predicted the fish would return to the creek sometime between mid-March and mid-June, and in recent days he decided to take a fresh look for them when water temperatures were rising and a shrub called the serviceberry or “shadbush” was blooming – a traditional sign that the shad are arriving in local waterways.

With the water temperature at 66 degrees F, Kauffman visited several locations upstream and downstream of the old dam, looking for signs that the fish had returned.

He found them in several locations, most significantly just below the Delaware Park Bridge, upstream from the old dam, in the first clear sign that they could now swim past the structure that had stood in their way for more than two centuries.

“Observed schools of over 100 American shad, hickory shad, and river herring just below the Delaware Park Bridge near the club house,” Kauffman wrote in notes recording the discovery.

The successful search coincided neatly with the shadbush blooms, suggesting that a link between the two is more than just an old-wives tale.

“The old shadbush folklore is apparently true and the shad are in White Clay Creek right on schedule, and they passed through the dam,” Kauffman said. “Horticultural folklore presumes that the shad will run when the serviceberry bush blooms and the shadbush was indeed in full flower this weekend in front of the UD rain garden.”

By reintroducing an important inhabitant of the river, Kauffman and his associates hope they will encourage other wildlife such as bald eagles that feed on the shad, and freshwater mussels that move upstream by attaching themselves to the fish, and are an important water-filtration system.

The fishes’ presence is also expected to revive a recreational fishing industry and help the local economy, Kauffman said.

And better water quality in the creek also has wider benefits for Delaware, which gets 20 percent of its drinking water from its 100-square-mile watershed.

Meanwhile, the improving health of the creek is also shown by the presence of beavers – which have gnawed tree stumps that can be seen from the golf course – and which are apparently oblivious to Amtrak trains thundering by just a couple of hundred yards away.

With the return of the shad to the creek’s lower portion, Kauffman is now turning his attention to the removal of the next dam some three and a half miles upstream, and predicted that project will be done this summer at a cost of around $30,000.

He hopes over the next five years to remove five more dams – some of them also colonial structures – on the creek that has its headwaters in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and finally flows out into the Christina River.

“The plan is to remove all seven and get the fish up into Pennsylvania,” he said.

But any further dam removals must balance ecological concerns with requirements for historic preservation – an issue that limited the demolition of the Hale-Byrnes dam to just the middle 45 feet.

“This is a rare example of colonial infrastructure so we did a hybrid solution where we breached a portion of it and left the remnants in place,” Kauffman said.

Metal spikes and chunks of timber that were forged or cut for the dam in the middle of the 18th century are still lying on the creek banks, and some will be taken to a laboratory on UD’s high-tech STAR campus where they will be preserved, Kauffman said.

Although the campus now lacks the data center that was planned by a private contractor and then canceled by the university, it can at least boast a lab where colonial history will be preserved, he said.

“We don’t have a data center at the STAR campus but we have this archaeological laboratory now,” he said

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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