American Shad (alosa sapidissima)
Ilustration by Laurie Hewitt, USFWS

 

They have been called poor man's salmon and white shad. The exquisite taste of their meat is reflected in their Latin species name, sapidissima, meaning savory. They are American shad, largest member of the herring family.

Native Americans harvested shad during the annual spring spawning runs and taught colonists how to catch shad in order to feed their families. Dried shad has been credited with saving George Washington's troops from starvation as they camped along the Schuylkill River at Valley Forge. By the 1800s fishermen caught shad by the ton. Even farmers took advantage of this seemingly endless supply of fish, using shad as fertilizer for their fields. People prized shad for their succulent meat and tasty roe (eggs). Everyone eagerly awaited the spring migration of shad.


Here are other fish found in Chesapeake Bay:

Striped Bass

Herring

Atlantic Sturgeon

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Life History

American shad are anadromous fish, meaning they spend most of their lives in saltwater but spawn in freshwater. Shad are found along the Atlantic seaboard from Labrador to Florida. Shad are an important food source for other fish such as bluefish and striped bass.

Rising spring temperatures prompt shad to leave the ocean and return to the waters in which they were born. Biologists believe the fish find their natal streams through their uncanny sense of smell. Males arrive on the spawning grounds first, followed by egg-laden females. A female releases 100,000 to 600,000 eggs into the water to be fertilized by several males. Adult shad return to the ocean soon after spawning.

The transparent fertilized eggs are carried along by the current. The larvae hatch in 4 to 12 days. Juvenile shad spend their first summer in freshwater. By autumn, the young shad gather in schools and swim to the ocean. They will live in the ocean from three to six years, until sexually mature then return to freshwater to complete their life cycle. This sustained a thriving shad population for centuries, but this changed as America prospered.

Declining Populations

As human population increased so did the demand for shad. The Chesapeake Bay shad fishery was an important seasonal industry by the 1800s. Shad became one of the most commercially valuable fish in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

By the late 1800s, excessive harvesting took its toll on shad. This exploitation coupled with pollution and loss of spawning grounds began a downward spiral of shad populations. From an annual harvest of 17.5 million pounds at the turn of the century, Chesapeake shad harvests dwindled to less than 2 million pounds by the 1970s.

The Susquehanna was once the Bay's most important river for spawning shad. The Pennsylvania canal system, built in the 1830s, required feeder dams that restricted migration to the lower 45 miles of the river. Later, four hydroelectric dams eliminated all shad runs in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile people continued damming other rivers throughout the watershed.

Early attempts at creating fish passage, or fishways, around dams failed. Resource managers attempted to restore shad stocks by releasing hatchery-reared shad into rivers. This attempt proved futile since overfishing continued and spawning grounds remained blocked. Populations continued to decline and restocking efforts ceased by the 1930s.

Growth brought pollutants from mills, factories, mines and domestic sewage that degraded vital shad spawning grounds. Improper timber harvest and farming practices led to excessive erosion, further degrading rivers and streams.

Shad all but disappeared from the Potomac River by the 1950s. In 1980, Maryland shad harvests fell to a record low of 25,000 pounds and the state placed a moratorium on shad harvests in the Chesapeake Bay. Shad was one of the most abundant fish in Virginia. In the 1980s, catches ranged from two to three million pounds. In 1992, fishermen harvested less than 500,000 pounds. Virginia banned shad fishing in rivers and the Chesapeake Bay after the 1993 spring harvest.

Restoring American Shad

Shad restoration is underway in 15 river basins from Maine to Virginia. Success will depend upon improving water quality, preventing overfishing and reopening spawning grounds. The goal is to achieve self-sustaining runs of shad and to reopen hundreds of miles of spawning habitat. Federal and state agencies and private organizations, working together, developed an American Shad Fishery Management Plan. The plan calls for actions to restrict harvests, restore stocks, and provide fishways around dams and other barriers to spawning grounds.

One successful fish passage facility is an elevator system at Conowingo Dam near the mouth of the Susquehanna River. Two elevators, or fish lifts, move migrating fish to the top of the dam. The shad are sorted out and transported, by truck, 60 miles upstream, past 3 dams to their spawning grounds. Fish lifts at three other dams in Pennsylvania should be in place by the year 2000. Other fish passage efforts have focused on the Patapsco River in Maryland, the James River in Virginia and Rock Creek in the District of Columbia. More than 170 miles of spawning habitat are now open to anadromous fish.

Throughout the watershed, barriers are being removed or modified, opening spawning areas to shad and other migratory fish. Road culverts and gauging stations are being redesigned to provide the gradient and flow of water the fish need. Dams no longer in use can be breached. Breaching removes all or part of a dam to allow fish to swim upstream.

Dams still in use may require a fish ladder. A fish ladder is an inclined water channel structure with a series of baffles or weirs. The baffles interrupt and slow the flow of water, simulating pools and rapids. Fish swim up the ladder just as they would swim up natural rapids. Larger dams require fish lifts.

Fishways alone will not restore shad populations. After a stream blockage is removed, biologists must reintroduce shad into newly opened spawning grounds. Fertilized eggs and juvenile shad can be released into upriver areas. Another technique captures adults that are ready to spawn and releases them into newly accessible spawning areas.

Fishways and stocking must be reinforced by protecting important fish habitat. Larval fish are more susceptible to pollutants in the water and require good water quality to survive. Establishing sustainable harvests is also critical to restoration. Atlantic Coast states have agreed upon coast-wide harvest limits but not all states have enforced these limits through legislation. Coastal harvesting still intercepts many shad before they can reach protected waters to spawn.

Cooperation between federal and state agencies, private businesses and individuals is the key to successful restoration of shad and other living resources. The steps taken today to conserve migratory fish will sustain commercial and recreational fisheries now and for future generations.

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