In 1911, when the first members of Delaware’s new Game and Fish Commission were appointed by the Governor and the state’s first game warden was hired, commercial watermen were harvesting oysters under sail, the general public fished for meals, and state officials were just beginning to consider fisheries conservation a priority.
As the DNREC Division of Fish and Wildlife celebrates Delaware’s first 100 years of fish and wildlife conservation by reflecting on the past and moving into the future, here’s a closer look at how the idea of conserving the bounty of fish and shellfish found in the Delaware Bay and the state’s many waterways grew into the scientific management techniques practiced by the Division’s Fisheries Section today to maintain the state’s many and varied aquatic species. These species include the finfish and shellfish that provide residents and visitors with first-rate recreational fishing opportunities in the First State as well as those under long-term management to support Delaware’s economically important commercial fishing industry.
“Over the past century, fisheries science and management in Delaware, combined with enhanced efforts to improve water quality, has evolved and expanded to help protect and expand critical aquatic populations. As a result of these efforts, we have more recreational opportunities for anglers, improved marine and freshwater habitat for fish, and cleaner water for everyone,” said DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara. “We look forward to continuing this work so future generations can enjoy Delaware’s amazing waterways and ecological treasures.”
From the beginning, recreation was part of the Board of Game and Fish Commissioners’ mission plan – and 1938 was a banner year, with several of Delaware’s popular recreational fishing events getting their starts:
· The first statewide fishing contest, held to increase interest in angling, offered prizes from $10 to $25 for the largest fish. A statewide contest continues today as the Delaware Sport Fishing Tournament.
· The state’s first youth fishing tournament was held at the Brandywine Zoo in Wilmington, when the zoo’s pond was stocked and children fished with bamboo poles under the direction of game wardens. Today’s Youth Fishing Tournament is held annually in June at three ponds statewide.
· The first recorded trout stocking took place when 175 brown and rainbow trout were released in upstate creeks. The Delaware Trout Stamp was introduced in 1955, with the proceeds used to purchase fish. This past spring, thousands of rainbow, brown and golden trout were purchased and released in two downstate ponds and six upstate streams. In honor of the 100th anniversary celebration, 100 extra trophy-sized trout up to 6 pounds were stocked in White Clay, Christina, Pike and Mill Creeks, Wilson Run and Beaver Run, and a special anniversary edition of the 2011 Delaware Fishing Guide was published, featuring historic photos, milestones and facts.
Construction of fishing ponds and dozens of boat ramps and piers throughout the state also began in the early 20th century and continue to provide anglers with access to a wide range of excellent fishing opportunities statewide today, with facilities such as the new Lewes boat ramp completed in 2009 and the new Cedar Creek ramp near Milford starting construction this fall.
Not long after the first Commissioners took office, the practice of anglers helping to support fisheries through license fees began. The first non-resident Delaware fishing licenses were sold for $3 in 1914, with the goal of raising revenue to maintain and enhance the state’s fisheries.
One of the state’s first large-scale efforts at fisheries management came in 1919, when heavy floods destroyed a number of dams in Kent and Sussex County, and game wardens rescued 17,658 large fish and returned them to state fishing ponds. The early 1950s ushered in modern fisheries management, with the state’s first biological survey of freshwater ponds, the first funding for pond restoration work and construction of Griffiths Lake near Milford through the new Freshwater Fisheries Division, and most importantly, the first regulatory powers over freshwater fish and game granted to the Game and Fish Commission.
Management and conservation of some of Delaware’s important species is a story of booms and busts from the late 19th century to the present:
In the mid-1800s, millions of horseshoe crabs were harvested annually for fertilizer; new chemical fertilizers reduced demand by the 1960s and populations increased. In the 1990s, demand again grew for the large brown “crabs” as eel and whelk bait. In 1998, a coast wide horseshoe crab management plan was approved to limit harvest and protect migratory shorebirds that depend on their eggs for food on their trip; the annual spawning survey began in 1999, and today shows a modest increase.
In 1880, the Delaware Bay oyster harvest exceeded 2.4 million bushels. Between 1957 and 1990, the harvest dropped to 50,000 bushels due to disease and parasites. In 2010, oyster restoration projects in Delaware and New Jersey have helped stabilize the population, producing a harvest of 100,000 bushels.
In the late 1880s, the annual Atlantic sturgeon catch was nearly 6 million pounds; since 1910, these large fish have come close to extinction. Then in 2009, Fisheries biologists found juvenile sturgeon in the Delaware River – the first evidence of sturgeon spawning in our waters in three decades.
Striped bass, the most sought-after fish on the Atlantic coast, was brought back from the brink of becoming extremely rare in Delaware in the 1980s to historically high abundance in recent years by management measures taken by Delaware and other Atlantic coast states. In addition to implementing these recovery measures, the Division did research proving that the Delaware River was again a major striped bass spawning area, resulting in the Delaware River being designated as a striped bass producer area by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Each of these species, as well as others such as American shad in the Nanticoke River, shows positive signs of recovery today, while other important species, such as our state fish, the weakfish, continue to decline. “Reversing these declines through research and management efforts is our challenge now and into the future, said Fisheries Administrator John Clark, “and we look forward to adding more species to our success list.”
Management of Delaware’s popular marine fisheries has also been a topic for discussion since the earliest days of the Commission. In 1995, the Division of Fish and Wildlife started an exciting project to enhance marine fisheries: the Delaware Artificial Reef Program. As part of the Fisheries Section’s comprehensive management plan, the program is designed to enhance fisheries habitat on the largely featureless sandy Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean floor off the Delaware coast and provide marine fishing opportunities for anglers. Since the program’s inception, a variety of materials have been sunk on 11 reef sites as underwater “fish condos,” from stripped-down subway cars to obsolete military vehicles. In August, the program reefed its largest object so far: the ex-USS Arthur W. Radford, a 563-foot U.S. Navy destroyer.
“We recently found juvenile sturgeon in the Delaware River – the first evidence of this remarkable species spawning in 30 years. Through the Delaware Bay Oyster Restoration Project, oysters are coming back from the brink as a species and a commercial fishery. Alongside our successes, we still have plenty of work to do – and we will continue on a positive path forward into our next century of fisheries conservation,” said David Saveikis, Director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife.
This history of the Delaware Fisheries Section is part of a series of press releases to be issued in 2011 in honor of the 100th anniversary of fish and wildlife conservation in Delaware.