Fish lifts help important spawning species travel above the Conowingo Dam, but unwanted visitors get in there, too. Handout photo.

Invasive Fish Pulled from Conowingo Lift Goes to Md. Food Banks

Some unwelcome hitchhikers in the Conowingo Dam’s fish lifts are going to help feed Maryland’s hungry.

More than 1,000 pounds of invasive catfish and snakeheads—intercepted at the Conowingo—have been processed and given to food banks providing healthy meals to Maryland families. And some are going to scientific research.

The Conowingo Dam uses fish lifts to help migrating fish species reach their spawning grounds up the Susquehanna River. But unwanted fish wind up in the lifts, too. Exelon has been operating a “trap and transport” program on one of the fish lifts to reduce the number of destructive species moving through the watershed.

The lift on the west side of the dam consists of a series of gates and channels of water, designed specifically to attract and trap fish in a tank-like ‘hopper’ that is lifted into the air and over a sorting tank. The water and fish are then released into the tank and biologists, contracted by Exelon, manually sort the fish, picking out shad and river herring. Those fish are put in holding tanks, then trucked in portable tanks upstream. As they’re sorting, workers pull out snakeheads along with blue and flathead catfish, holding them in a refrigerated trailer until they are transported offsite.

It’s a public-private partnership between the Maryland Department of Resources (DNR), dam owner Exelon Corp., the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), and local seafood wholesaler, JJ McDonnell and Co.,

“This initiative serves multiple goals, including controlling invasive fish species by harvesting them to minimize their impacts on the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and providing protein-rich meals to those in need,” DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio said. “We will also improve our collection of scientific data, which will help us better manage these invasives in the future.”

With large numbers of northern snakeheads drawn from the dam’s west fish lift, DNR coordinated with MDA and local seafood wholesaler JJ McDonnell to process the unwelcomed fish. 

“MDA’s seafood marketing program, Maryland’s Best Seafood, continues to market, advertise, and grow our state’s iconic seafood industry,” MDA Secretary Joe Bartenfelder said. “We are happy to be a part of this innovative public-private partnership that helps tackle so many issues at once: controlling populations of invasive species in the watershed, protecting our environment, supporting a local seafood company, and, most importantly, feeding hungry Marylanders.”

Much of the processed fish is going to the Maryland Food Bank and Maryland United Way. Some of the northern snakehead and flathead catfish are also being used for several research projects that will provide information to help manage these invasives going forward.

Meg Walburn Viviano