Nation’s ‘Founding Fish’ Return to River After 300 Years

River restoration in Delaware resuscitates ancient spawning ground for shad.


Walking in the snow along the Brandywine River.

(Khairil Azhar Junos /

In Brandywine Creek, Delaware, history is in the making. For the first time in 300 years, spawning fish are returning to their ancestral home. Thanks to the removal of dams, the river is once again free-flowing and healthy, its native fish returning each spring in the thousands, according to the NYT.

The Brandywine Creek starts in Pennsylvania, flowing southeast right through Wilmington, Delaware, and connecting with the Christina River before meeting the Atlantic. Meandering through dense woods, fish have used this protected waterway to migrate from the Atlantic to spawn upstream.

For centuries, the waters were important to all who lived near its banks, according to the Brandywine Conservancy, beginning with the Lenape Nation who relied on its bountiful fish called shad. The Dutch and Swedes colonized this area in the 17th century, calling the river Fishkill, or fish stream, after seeing so many glistening fish in its waters. These Europeans settlers set up farms and eventually harnessed the power of the river for their grist mills and the shad soon found the route to their ancient spawning grounds cut off. 

In the 1970s, the story took a positive turn with the Clean Water Act. The waters are now flowing clean, the dams are being removed, and the fish are finally reconnecting with their former spawning ground. 

This is good news for more than the fish, according to the NYT. The removal of these 11 dams improves the environment by cooling the temperature of the water and speeding the water flow which helps keep it clean. In addition, the removal of dams prevents flooding upstream, a concern due to frequent storms. The return of the fish also provides food for wildlife, especially bald eagles.

All of the dams along the river will be removed except for three that will be preserved as national historic landmarks. To assist the fish in their journey upriver, fish ladders, special bypasses, and ramps will be constructed atop these dams to aid the fish on their spawning journey.

There is, however, a dam that presently blocks the fish from completing their journey. This will be a windfall for fly fishermen and anglers who will find plenty of American shad, hickory shad, and striped bass to catch this spring. In fact, the fish are so plentiful that shad were caught in downtown Wilmington last spring right underneath the I-95 bridge, according to Brandywine Conservancy.

Other states are inspired by these results, according to the NYT. Dams have already been removed in Maine, while Oregon and California will be following suit, with their dams planned to be removed in 2022. In New York State, some 2,000 dams line the Hudson River and the state has pledged $5 million to have them removed.

All of the Brandywine dams are planned to be taken down by 2022, according to the Brandywine Conservancy. When all of the dams are gone, the waters will once again flow 24 miles undisturbed, restoring the rivers and the wildlife, as well as returning many areas to their ancient, natural rhythm.

As Brandywine Conservancy describes this, they are on a “quest to bring back our nation’s founding fish to the Brandywine.” These conservationists are remaking history, connecting the waterways of two states, and opening waters where fish have not been seen for three centuries.

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