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American Shad

Alosa sapidissima

Life HistoryAmerican shad

  • American shad are anadromous fish, meaning they spend most of their lives in saltwater but spawn in freshwater.
  • Rising spring temperatures prompt shad to leave the ocean and return to the waters in which they were born. Biologists believe shad find their natal streams through their 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. The larvae hatch in 4 to 12 days.
  • Juvenile shad spend their first summer in freshwater. In the autumn of their first year, young shad gather in schools and swim to the ocean where they live for three to six years until sexually mature.


  • The shad fishery was once the largest commercial fishery in the Chesapeake Bay. By the late 1800s, over-harvest took its toll on shad. This exploitation coupled with pollution and loss of spawning grounds began a downward spiral for 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.
  • Shad are an important food resource for other fish, such as bluefish and striped bass. Therefore, the decline in shad populations affects the entire ecosystem.


  • Shad restoration is underway in 15 river basins from Maine to Virginia. Success will depend upon improving water quality, preventing over-fishing and reopening spawning grounds.
  • The goal of the restoration effort is to achieve self-sustaining runs of shad and to reopen hundreds of miles of spawning habitat. Federal and state agencies and private organizations have worked to develop an American Shad Fishery Management Plan. The plan calls for restricting harvest, restoring stocks, and providing passage around dams and other barriers to provide access to spawning grounds.


Last updated: February 18, 2016
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