Shad Passage on the Schuylkill River

By Denis Mora

Denis Mora, January 2004

The future looks bright. That was the impression I got when I read an article about the Fairmount Fishway in the November 1980 issue of the Pennsylvania Angler. The fishway was designed to enable migrations of fish (especially American Shad) to pass over Fairmount Dam while making their annual runs up the Schuylkill River to spawn.

The Shad, historically abundant, was an important food source for early America and even helped feed Washington's troops at Valley Forge. But this Great fish disappeared from the Schuylkill River when the Fairmount Dam was built in 1818. For the next 161 years shad were unable to make their annual runs upriver. Then in April 1979 the fishway opened with the hope that shad would once again make those runs. But the fishway has had it's share of problems including maintenance issues, storm waters bringing debris downriver clogging the fishway, also the design of the fishway, although state of the art at it's inception, has been ineffective at attracting Shad. Add to that the fact that the success of the fishway was dependant on Shad making their way up the Delaware River and coming up the Schuylkill River by accident. Dams upriver continue to block runs of fish. After 25 years these factors have kept Shad numbers at a minimum.

There is good news though. The Philadelphia Water Department is taking over the operations of the fishway. The Water Dept. and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have formed a partnership and are redesigning and funding reconstruction of the fishway. The reconstruction will increase the flow where the fish enter the fishway, therefore attracting more Shad into the fishway. Reconstruction will also change the angle at which water enters the fishway. This will reduce the amount of debris that clogs the fishway. Plans include an outdoor classroom and a video camera that will send live video to the Fairmount Waterworks and possibly the Internet.

The Pa. Fish and Boat Commission has been placing Shad fry (baby Shad) in the upper Schuylkill River for the past several years. Because they're stocked at such a young age, the river is imprinted on them. They head out to saltwater till they mature, then they return to this imprinted river to spawn.

Dam removals and more fishways are planned upriver. This should allow Shad to move upriver to suitable spawning habitat as far as Reading.

So, if migrating Shad are of interest to you, then you'll have to agree the future looks bright.

March 2, 2004