Improvements for the Potomac River: River Health Now A “C” Grade


The following is a guest post series by JD Willoughby. JD has worked to protect and restore natural resources for more than 20 years in the Chesapeake Bay. Now located in Anchorage, AK, she continues her work in the natural resources field and enjoys exploring the last frontier.


Dyke Marsh, Potomac River, VA | © Mr T in DC

Dyke Marsh, Potomac River, VA | © Mr T in DC

Where the Potomac River meets forested banks, is home to submerged grasses and eagles diving for fish, it can be easy to only see its beauty. Yet, the thousands of miles of asphalt and concrete surrounding the river that wash contaminated runoff into its waters, the layers of sediment choking native grasses, and struggling fisheries show another side to the Potomac. While significant improvements to the health of the river have been made, new and legacy threats to its waters continue.

In the previous America’s Most Endangered Rivers® report, the Potomac topped the listing. It highlighted the threat to our nation’s river from efforts to undermine clean water and public health protections. These attacks become increasingly important as the health of the Potomac River is starting to see gradual improvements, as evidenced by the Potomac Conservancy’s most recent report card.

The Potomac Conservancy, a non-profit environmental group working to restore the watershed, issued its biennial report card and the Potomac received a “C” [PDF]. An improvement from its “D” grade in 2009, the Conservancy pointed out a few bright spots, but many more that needed work. The report card measures the health of the Potomac using five parameters: fish, habitat, pollution, land, and people. I’ll be doing a series of three blog posts about this report. For today, I will focus on what is happening with fish in the Potomac River.

The Potomac Conservancy used striped bass, white perch, and American shad as the parameters to measure fish health in the river. They chose these species because their basic requirements for habitat, forage, water quality, and other factors are representative of many other species in the river. Only American shad received an “A” grade, and there is a very good reason. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has established benchmark goals for American shad based on 1950s populations. Jim Cummins, Director for Living Resources at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB), has been working to restore American shad in the Potomac since 1995 through restocking and monitoring efforts. American shad exceeded the NMFS benchmarks in 2011 by surpassing the population goal by 20%. However, Cummins says the fishery is only about 10% of what he’d like to see.

American shad in other river basins along the Atlantic Coast are not necessary faring as well. Therefore, the species won’t fully recover until populations in other river systems are restored. Several large rivers on the East Coast, including the Susquehanna, Delaware, Rappahannock, and others, benefit from Potomac shad fry each year, which hopefully help to restore those populations.

American shad spawn in freshwater, but live most of their adult lives in the ocean. While they encounter predation in the rivers from other freshwater fish, they also become prey and bycatch in the ocean. “A three-year old American shad and a five-year old herring look similar,” said Cummins. However, river herring are used as lobster bait by northeastern fishermen.

While American shad numbers continue to rebound in the Potomac River Basin, a moratorium established by the Potomac River Fisheries Commission on American shad fishing in the river has remained in place since 1982.

Learn more about ICPRB’s American shad restoration project.