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Federal and State Fish Hatcheries Work to Restore Depleted Populations of American Shad Along the Atlantic Coast


February 28, 2005

Jim Rothschild, 404/679-7291


Recent captures of hatchery-reared, American shad juveniles indicate the species is being restored into the lower reaches of North Carolina’s Roanoke River. The American shad, a species related to the herring and native to the Atlantic coast from the St. Lawrence River to the tip of Florida, has been commercially valuable for its meat and roe since colonial times.

In connection with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnership program to help restore depleted populations of American shad along the Atlantic coast, the Service’s Edenton National Fish Hatchery, in Edenton, North Carolina, and North Carolina’s Watha State Fish Hatchery, reared and released approximately two million American shad fry into the Roanoke River last spring.

“American shad is part of our Nation’s heritage and is still important commercially and recreationally although its population has been in decline for several decades,” said Ronnie Smith, fisheries biologist with the Service’s Edenton National Fish Hatchery.
“The shad’s restoration will benefit Atlantic coastal communities and the life cycles of other fish species.”

“We are very satisfied to discover that our cooperative production and stocking efforts are contributing to the restoration effort this early in the Roanoke River American shad project,” said Jeff Evans, hatchery supervisor with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s Watha Fish Hatchery. “We plan on continuing to improve our production and stocking proficiency of American shad fry to provide an optimal contribution to the restoration project.”

Species of shad and river herring once supported important commercial and recreational fisheries along the Atlantic coast, which included North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound fishery that in the mid-1840s had 15 large haul seine operations, employing approximately 1,000 workers. The major tributaries to the Albemarle Sound are the Roanoke River and Chowan River.

The Albemarle Sound’s most valuable fishery, American shad, was shipped to markets in Baltimore, Maryland, and marketed in Richmond, Petersburg, and Norfolk, Virginia. The shad’s oily flesh permitted it to be preserved with salt and hence, shipped without ice or refrigeration. The average landings of American shad and river herring from 1890 to 1970 were almost 11.9 million pounds per year.

During the past 75 years, however, Atlantic coastal American shad populations have steadily declined, and the catch totaled only 1.5 million pounds in 1992 and 1993. This long decline has been due to over fishing and habitat degradation in spawning areas. Historically, American shad spawned in virtually every accessible river and tributary along the coast, but dams and other impediments together with degradation of water quality have severely depleted suitable American shad spawning habitat.

The hatchery-produced shad were caught during a sampling of outward migrating juveniles in the lower Roanoke River by the Inland Fisheries Division of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. The sampling began in August and was conducted weekly through November 2004 using electrofishing. Of the 228 juvenile American shad collected, state biologists reported that 10 had been marked with the antibiotic, oxytetracycline indicating that they were hatchery reared. Prior to their initial release from the hatchery, the fry were immersed in water containing a small amount of oxytetracycline, which leaves a telltale stain on the fish’s ear bone. In 2003, the first year in which American shad were stocked above John H. Kerr Reservoir, outward migrating juveniles marked with oxytetracycline were also captured.

As both Edenton and Watha hatchery staffs continue to become more proficient in hormone-induced tank spawning of American shad, the emerging picture is that fry stocking will continue to increase shad populations in the future.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million- acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 545 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resources offices, and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign and Native American Tribal governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to State fish and wildlife agencies.

View of the American shad spawning tank at Edenton National Fish Hatchery

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