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Environment & Science

Hook, line and sinker: Pa. spent millions on shad ladders that don’t work

Shad ladder in Easton
Molly Bilinski
The shad ladder, connected to Easton Dam at Delaware Canal State Park, has fallen into disrepair.

EASTON, Pa. — Bill Gordon was in his early 30s in 1994, after officials spent $3.3 million to build shad ladders at the Easton and Chain dams.

  • American shad populations, once plentiful in the Lehigh River, have dwindled
  • Officials and fishermen point to ineffective fish ladders at the Easton and Chain dams
  • Solutions include removing the dams or modifying existing fish ladders

He knew they weren’t going to work.

“It required the fish to swim through a very narrow passage and they can't do it together,” said Gordon. “So they're asking an ocean fish that's used to hanging with all the schools to go through an opening that's like 12 inches wide, and they have to do it by themselves."

“So, they shy away from it.”

    For more than a century, officials and fishermen across the state and the Lehigh Valley have struggled to find a solution to bolster shad populations in the Lehigh River, from stocking the river with young shad to building fish ladders to help adults swim upstream to spawn.
    Over the last two years, studies have shown physical barriers, the dams, have blocked shad from successfully passing through, and the fish ladders just don’t work. Now, the Valley’s shad fishermen are calling for more tangible solutions.

    At least one agency agrees. Daryl Pierce, area fisheries manager for the state Fish and Boat Commission said, “Fully restoring the historical Lehigh River American Shad runs can only be achieved through the removal of both the Easton and Chain dams.”

    “Restoration may be partially achieved, however, through the creation of alternative fish passage structures, such as a nature-like fishway, instead of technical-type fishways,” he added, before noting that the dam’s owners are responsible for maintaining the structures.

    A request for comment from city Mayor Sal Panto Jr. asking if either dam is in talks to be dismantled and/or modified in some way to boost shad ladder usage was not returned.

    Pierce said the agency "is unaware of any active plans for removing either the Easton or Chain dams."

    When Gordon saw the ladder installed, he said, “I said it'll pass a lot of suckers, but it's never going to pass many shad.”

    The point was that the ladder looked bad to start with. And we had tried to stop that, and they didn't listen.
    Bill Gordon, geologist and member of the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association

    Gordon, a geologist and member of the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association, has been fishing for shad for more than four decades. He spends 100 and 150 days a year shad fishing, starting in January in Florida and following the runs up the coast.

    “The point was that the ladder looked bad to start with,” Gordon said. “And we had tried to stop that, and they didn't listen.”

    During a visit to the fish ladder on the Easton Dam last week, the stairs to the public observation windows were flooded from recent rains, and the gate was locked to visitors. The brown water reached the bottom of a bronze-colored plaque that included an embossing of the fish as well as a few lines of text.

    Whether or not the sign included information about shad restoration efforts was unclear. The windows built to view migrating shad were inaccessible – and have been for years. It’s in stark contrast to the dedication day in October 1993 when officials declared the fish ladders would generate millions in tourism dollars.

    What are shad, anyway? (And what’s a fish ladder?)

    Shad have been a part of life on the East Coast of North America for hundreds of years, pre-dating European settlers.

    The Lenni Lenape referred to the shad as a "porcupine-fish-turned-inside-out,” due to their intricate bone structure, according to researchers at Lehigh University. The fish were once common in the Lehigh River.

    Called “America’s Founding Fish,” shad also have a place in early colonial lore.

    “Legend has it that an early shad run in the Schuylkill River (Pennsylvania) in 1778, during the Revolutionary War, fed Washington’s troops that were starving at Valley Forge, which in turn enabled them to fight on and help the United States earn victory,” according to researchers in Virginia.

    "Though there’s little factual proof of that story, it’s a reflection of just how central shad have been to the culture and history of the country.”

    Once the area was colonized, population and industry expanded, polluting the Lehigh River and creating dams that stifled shad movement, which the species depend on to spawn.

    Shad are a migratory species found along the Atlantic coast of North America from Newfoundland to Florida, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Generally blue or green along the top of their body with silvery sides, they live most of their lives in the Atlantic Ocean and return to the freshwater rivers where they were hatched in order to spawn and continue their life cycle.

    Shad have a special connection to the state’s Fish and Boat Commission, also called the agency’ “founding fish.” After the Civil War, Gov. Andrew G. Curtin appointed Col. James Worrall as the state’s first commissioner of fisheries.

    “Col. Worrall’s job was to investigate these problems and take steps to restore shad,” according to a 2013 commission flier. “Today, PFBC is still working to restore American shad and other migratory fish.”

    Restoration efforts included installing fish ladders at the Easton and Glendon dams.

    Also known as a fishway, a fish ladder provides a detour route for migrating fish past an obstruction on the river, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    “Designs vary depending on the obstruction, river flow and species of fish affected, but the general principle is the same for all fish ladders: the ladder contains a series of ascending pools that are reached by swimming against a stream of water,” according to the agency. “Fish leap through the cascade of rushing water, rest in a pool and then repeat the process until they are out of the ladder.”

    A roadmap to restoration

    Eric Fistler has been hosting the Bi-State Shad Fishing Contest on the Delaware River for more than a decade and has been part of the effort to restore shad populations in the Lehigh River.

    “We were trying to remove the dams on the Lehigh, make modifications to the existing shad ladder,” Fistler said. “It's there and it doesn't work … We've been fighting for the last couple of years, but starting back up again. That's for sure.”

    Last year, The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental organization, published “Delaware River Basin: Restoration Roadmap for American Shad, Alewife, and Blueback Herring.” The report identified the Lehigh River as a “Tier 1 - Highest Priority” site for restoration.

    Researchers identified priority actions for the Lehigh, including developing operations and maintenance plans for Easton and Chain dams; creating renderings showing holistic river restoration, including dam removals; and continuing dam removal throughout the Lehigh basin “to demonstrate value of restoration projects to broader public.”

    And they said money is available to support those projects.

    “Sustained federal funding through the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund and new aquatic connectivity funding opportunities through the 2021 Infrastructure and Investment Act should provide the broader restoration community with much of the funding needed to restore spawning and rearing habitats for shad and river herring as well as remove obsolete infrastructure that was not designed to withstand the increased flooding associated with climate change,” researchers argued.

    Shad passage data
    Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission
    The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission tracks shad numbers at the Easton and Chain dams over time. The agency said removal of the dams would help boost populations.

    A year before, the Delaware River Basin Fish and Wildlife Management Cooperative published their “American Shad Habitat Plan for the Delaware River,” which also noted the fish ladders on the Lehigh River are “ineffective.”

    Members of the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association have for years advocated for the removal of the dams. In 2014, the organization passed a resolution that, in part, included their interest in removing the dams and installing pumping stations to keep canals fed.

    “If not for dam removal, at least give us a better shad ladder,” Fistler said. “I don't know where it's gonna go, but that's where we are right now, and what we're fighting for.”

    West Coast, best coast?

    Some West Coast communities have seen record-breaking shad migrations through fish ladders — even though they aren’t a native species.

    During one weekend in June 2020, more than 1.1 million shad passed the counting window at Bonneville Dam, which spans the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, according to local reports.

    But, there’s a problem — the shad are taking up space on the 40-foot wide ladders originally meant for salmon and steelhead trout.

    Shad were introduced to West Coast rivers in the late 1800s and rapidly expanded, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a regional organization that works to balance environment and energy needs.

    “Potential hazards of increasing shad populations to native fishes include greater competition for food and critical nursery habitat, predation on salmon young, disease transmission or some combination of these processes,” according to the council’s website. “Impacts of shad potentially compound the well-established effects of the ‘4 Hs’ — hydrosystem, habitat, hatcheries and harvest — on native fishes.”

    Among the reasons listed for the success of shad populations in the river, officials point to “the series of hydropower dams and reservoirs in the Columbia River system has created favorable conditions for shad passage, spawning and rearing.”

    The Lehigh Valley could take some lessons from the opposite coast, Gordon said. He gave a presentation in March about the successes of the West Coast ladders during a meeting of the Delaware Shad Fishermen's Association.

    “The best way to restore shad is to remove the dam,” Gordon said. “But why not try to modify? Why not model it after the West Coast, where they have these things in place?”

    ‘Not in my lifetime’

    For now, shad restoration in the Lehigh River has stalled, and there isn't much optimism that it will be fully realized anytime soon.

    Rusty Held, owner of Rusty Balls Tackle and treasurer for the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association, has never fished for shad in the Lehigh River.

    “I don't fish for shad in the Lehigh because I want to get them restored,” he said. “It's not a lot of fish going in there because the fish ladder isn't working.”

    But he, and other members of the association, will continue to try, he said.

    “We've been trying for quite a few years to get dams removed,” Held said. “And there's just so much opposition against it, it'll probably never happen. Not in my lifetime anyway.”