“You can’t see it. It’s electric. Boogie, woogie, woogie….”

“Electric Slide”

What does electricity have to do with fishing?

When it comes to fisheries management and preserving Virginia’s world-class fishing resource, quite a bit.

Electrofishing is a method the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) uses to assess fish populations. A boat equipped with specialized equipment moves through the water, passing a low-level electrical current along its path. The current is strong enough to stun nearby fish without killing them. They then float to the surface where they can be netted.

Once on the boat, the crew identifies each fish, takes measurements and scale and fin samples, and sometimes tags fish. What DWR crews learn can tell them a lot about what they have to do to make sure our various fisheries thrive.

The DWR was surveying hickory shad, American shad, blueback herring, alewife, and striped bass populations on the James River in downtown Richmond recently. Numbers of those fish have seen fluctuations in recent years, so they are monitored closely, and surveys are done weekly during their annual spring runs.

A fish on a measuring board taken during an electrofishing survey on the James River (George Noleff/WFXR News)

“We’re trying to get a handle on the population of Alosines; those are the American shad, the hickory shad, the alewife, and the blueback herring,” said DWR Fish Passage Coordinator Alan Weaver. “These fish come in waves, they come in pulses, so by sampling weekly, we sort of put the whole picture together for the spring.”

Knowing those numbers help fisheries managers and biologists take action to help keep fish populations in balance, and balance is key. Each species is a vital link in the ecosystem.

Take shad and herring, for example. They are born in rivers, swim out to sea, and then return to the rivers of their birth every spring to spawn and repeat the process. Along the way, they eat plankton, small fish, and other animals. In turn, they serve as food for other fish, animals, birds, and even people. If you lose any of those layers, the entire system suffers, and in some cases, it can even collapse.

That is why keeping track and managing those populations is so important.

“They may just look like little silver fish, but they’re incredibly charismatic,” said DWR Region One Aquatics Manager Clinton Morgeson. “They are the cornerstone of these freshwater rivers along the Atlantic coast.”