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By: Timothy B. Wheeler, BayJournal.com

By this time in a typical year, the main fish lift at Conowingo Dam would be busy hoisting thousands of fish daily over the 94-foot high barrier, including a dwindling number of American shad and river herring, so they can swim up the Susquehanna River to spawn.

But the lift has been idle so far this spring, another victim of the coronavirus pandemic. Exelon Corp., which owns the hydroelectric facility, suspended fish passage operations just before they were to start.

Not running the fish elevator represents another setback for long-running efforts to bring American shad and river herring populations back from historic low levels in most Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

But it’s not the only, or even the biggest blow to the migratory fish — health concerns also prompted Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware to cancel their annual stocking efforts that collectively release millions of hatchery-reared shad into the Susquehanna and other rivers.

“It’s hard to do the work and practice social distancing,” said Josh Tryninewski, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Exelon spokeswoman Deena O’Brien said the power company decided in late March not to run the two fish lifts at Conowingo to comply with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order that closed all but essential businesses. The dam is located in Maryland, about 10 miles upstream from where the Susquehanna meets the Bay.

The large lift on the east side of the dam normally runs from April 1 through the first week of June and carries migrating fish over the structure so they can reach spawning areas upriver. A much smaller lift on the west side, which is used in part to collect American shad eggs for hatchery stocking upriver, has also been idled.

In response to Hogan’s order, O’Brien said that Exelon had limited access to the dam in late March to only those staff needed to generate electricity. The contractors who normally operate the lift and monitor fish passage were deemed non-essential, she said.

That hasn’t set well with environmentalists. Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, said Exelon has been “shirking its responsibility” to help maintain fish populations in the river. He and Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, contend that the company’s federal license to generate power at Conowingo mandates it to run the lift.

“COVID-19 is not an acceptable excuse to lay off workers who are indeed ‘essential,’” he said, “as these migratory fish must rely on the fish lift at Conowingo Dam … for their survival.”

Mike Parker, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said officials in his agency were informed of the lift suspension in late March and chose not to fight it.

“I guess in the big picture human safety was given priority over fish passage this season,” he said. “It’s just an unfortunate result of what’s happening in the world right now. It’s a shame, something no one wanted to see happen.”

Exelon, which operates the hydro-power facility under a license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, notified it in a March 30 letter that the east fish lift had been idled. But commission staff recently wrote the company asking it to justify its decision, pointing out that assisting fish passage is required as part of its federal license.

O’Brien said the company has been working out how to resume fish lift operations at Conowingo.

“We feel like we’re ready to go again,” she said, with a plan that minimizes risks of workers getting sick from having additional people on site to run the lifts.

The company will have medical personnel present to screen people at the dam, she said, and has arranged to provide separate entrances and work areas for the contractors to help ensure “social distancing” from the power generation staff.

“Lifting fish is going to look a little different in the age of COVID,’’ she said, adding that “our main priority is keeping critical staff safe.”

O’Brien had said May 7 that lift operations would start soon, possibly over the weekend. But on Monday afternoon, she said that company officials still need to get their plan approved by authorities and to see if fish passage facilities idled at two upriver dams — Holtwood and Safe Harbor — can also be restarted. Those two dams, located in Pennsylvania, are operated by a different company, Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners.

Biologists say migrating shad find little suitable spawning habitat until they get past all three dams.

“[With] all these moving parts. It’s not as easy as flipping a switch,” the Exelon spokeswoman said.

UPDATE: Exelon began lifting fish over the dam Tuesday afternoon after Maryland officials okayed the company’s plan, O’Brien said.  She said the upriver dams are expected to resume fish passage activity “sometime next week.”  

Meanwhile, state agencies that for years have been stocking the Susquehanna and other Bay tributaries with hatchery-reared shad say they’ve had to forgo their efforts this spring because of the risks of spreading the coronavirus.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Van Dyke shad hatchery released about 830,000 shad larvae into the Susquehanna last year, but in other recent years has produced 3 million to 4 million for stocking.  The facility has been idled this year, though, because safety concerns kept contractors from going into the field to collect eggs from spawning adult fish, said the commission’s Tryninewski. Coronavirus-related budget concerns also barred hiring seasonal workers to staff the hatchery.

“No eggs, no staff, can’t do field work, can’t travel,” he said. “This is all … the fallout from COVID.” This is the first year since the hatchery began operations in 1977 that it failed to produce any shad for stocking.

Delaware, which last year stocked the Nanticoke River with more than 800,000 newly hatched shad, likewise suspended its hatchery operations this year. Michael Globetti, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said the agency is using the down time to perform needed hatchery equipment upgrades.

Health concerns also caused the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to cancel annual collections of eggs from American as well as hickory shad — a related fish also severely reduced from historical abundance. The state last year released 2.4 million shad larvae and nearly 500,000 young fish into the Choptank River.

DNR biologist Charles “Chuck” Stence said agency staff tried to figure out a way to go ahead, but couldn’t satisfy the need for social distancing, given the small boats and multiple people needed for such field work.

“Since we collect American shad broodstock at night on the Potomac River, I didn’t think it would be prudent to operate with only two people on the boat,” he explained. “Unfortunately, working a gill net is a three-person job, especially if the gill net hangs on the bottom.”

The DNR also collects hickory shad on the Susquehanna to retrieve eggs, but Stence said he didn’t feel comfortable trying that with just two people in a boat in a fast-flowing and sometimes treacherous stretch of the river.

With the late start of fish lift operations at Conowingo, the traditional spawning season is already half over. By May 11 last year, more than 550,000 fish had taken the lift upriver, according to data on the fish and boat commission website. More than 90% of those were gizzard shad, which are not migratory and not lacking in abundance. But more than two-thirds of the relatively few American shad taking the lift last year had done so by May 11.

Built in 1991 at a cost of $12 million, the fish lift on the east side of the dam essentially replaced a small lift that had operated until then on the western side of the structure which was used to capture shad that were then trucked around Conowingo and the upstream dams.

The east lift was heralded then as the largest of its kind in the nation. It was the byproduct of negotiations between Conowingo’s owner and state and federal officials seeking to improve passage for fish up the Susquehanna, which had been all but blocked to migratory species since the dam was built in 1928.

For a decade after the east lift’s completion, the number of shad moving upriver past the dam grew steadily, peaking at around 200,000 in 2001. Nearly 300,000 alewife and blueback herring, collectively known as river herring, also took the lift.

Since then, though, the runs of American shad and river herring past Conowingo have trended downward. Last year, the lift handled only 4,787 American shad and just 15 river herring.

Exelon agreed four years ago to revamp its fish passage effort. The deal, struck with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, calls for the company to overhaul the east fish lift at the dam, expanding its capacity and taking steps to try to attract more fish to use it. Until those physical changes are made, the company agreed to augment lift operations by collecting fish at the dam and resume trucking them upriver.

That agreement was contingent on Exelon receiving a renewed license. That was drawn out by a dispute with Maryland over what responsibility the company bears for dealing with the buildup of nutrients and sediment in the 14-mile reservoir or “pond” created upriver by the dam. 

The parties wound up in court but reached a settlement in 2019.  It calls for the company to spend more than $200 million over the next 50 years on projects intended to rebuild eel, mussel and migratory fish populations in the Susquehanna and to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution flowing into the Upper Bay.

But several environmental groups and local officials have complained the deal doesn’t do enough to offset the ecological harm caused by the dam. They have urged federal regulators not to issue the license until the terms can be renegotiated. The FERC has yet to issue a decision.


David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...