Shad play an important role in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. They transfer energy from the ocean and link the lower and upper levels of the food web. Shad are also a major part of the region’s history and culture.
Shad spend three to five years in the ocean as adults before returning to the Bay’s rivers and streams to spawn. Spring shad spawning runs were once a major food source for many species, including bald eagles, ospreys, striped bass, bluefish, catfish, minnows and blue crabs. Without these ocean-derived shad providing food for predators, the Bay ecosystem is diminished and unbalanced.
Shad form an important link between the planktonic community and predatory fish and birds. After hatching, shad feed mostly on tiny animals called zooplankton. In turn, larger animals such as ospreys, striped bass and largemouth bass eat shad.
Shad played a vital role in the Chesapeake region’s history. Native Americans relied on shad as an important food source. During the Revolutionary War, American shad were described as the “savior fish” that saved George Washington’s troops from starvation after the harsh winter of 1778.
Since colonial times, people have valued shad for their delicious meat and eggs (called roe). Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, fishermen flocked to fishing communities along the Chesapeake’s rivers for the annual spring shad spawning run. One way shad would be prepared is by “planking”: tacking the fish to wooden boards and smoking them next to an open fire. Several communities still hold shad festivals to honor this tradition.
American shad once supported the most valuable finfish fishery in the Chesapeake Bay. But shad populations in the Bay and along the Atlantic coast have collapsed due to pollution, historic overfishing, and dams that block access to the fish’s freshwater spawning grounds.
American shad supported one of the Chesapeake region’s first important fisheries. Native Americans and early colonists used traps and nets to harvest shad as they swam upstream to their spawning grounds. The impact of these early fishing efforts was minimal because of the region’s relatively small population.
By the end of the 1700s, the human population had swelled. Larger crews and haul seines were needed to meet the increasing market demand. Between 1831 and 1850, fishermen caught 41,000 metric tons of shad each year – approximately the weight of over 500,000 human adults!
After the Civil War, an increasing, industrializing population began to demand more fish and shellfish. Fishing gear became larger and more sophisticated. One haul seine used in the Potomac River was more than six miles long. Pound and gill nets also became increasingly common.
Shad populations quickly became severely depleted. By the end of the 19th century, fishermen only caught 8,000 metric tons of shad each year. Shad landings continued to decline throughout the 20th century. By the 1970s, fishermen caught just 1,000 metric tons of shad each year.
In 1980, Maryland closed its commercial shad fishery. The Potomac River’s shad fishery was closed in 1982 and Virginia’s was closed in 1994.
Shad are anadromous, which means they live in the ocean and spawn in freshwater rivers and streams. Historically, most shad and river herring spawned in freshwater areas that are now upstream of dams, road culverts and other blockages.
Early colonists constructed impoundments and mill dams, blocking shad migrations in many streams. During the industrial period of the 19th and 20th centuries, better technology allowed larger dams to be constructed across major rivers. These barricades completely blocked shad spawning areas.
By 1940, dams and other blockages had eliminated access to thousands of miles of freshwater spawning grounds. Large hydroelectric dams effectively closed shad fisheries on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Around the same time, people began fishing for shad in the lower sections of rivers, where the fish had begun congregating.
As the Bay watershed’s human population grew, so did our impact on the land and water. Erosion from poor farming practices, untreated waste from homes and factories, and runoff from cities and roads led to significant pollution in the streams and rivers that flow to the Bay.
The 1972 Clean Water Act helped reduce pollution and improve the condition of many local waterways. But by that time, water pollution had killed millions of shad and herring, and made it very difficult for young shad to survive.
Scientists and researchers in the Chesapeake region are working to restore and protect shad by controlling harvest, stocking rivers with hatchery-raised fish, removing dams and installing fish passageways. There have been some improvements, most notably in the Potomac River. However, shad populations in most of the Chesapeake’s rivers and streams are still far below the Bay Program’s long-term goals.
Along the entire East Coast, the American shad population does not appear to be recovering, according to a 2007 stock assessment. Scientists believe this may be partially due to shad being caught as bycatch in ocean fisheries. Efforts are underway to better understand and manage this potential problem.
The commercial fishery for American shad has been closed throughout most of the Bay region since the mid-1990s. Limited commercial harvest has been permitted in the Potomac River since 2003 due to the shad population’s recovery there. Recreational shad harvest is closed Bay-wide, although catch-and-release fishing is allowed.
Because shad are migratory and spend much of their lives in the Atlantic Ocean, it’s crucial that the fish are managed properly outside of the Bay. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) manages the coastal shad and river herring stock. The ASMFC has completely closed the shad ocean intercept fishery and limited recreational shad catches in coastal waters.
Several Bay states (including Delaware, Maryland and Virginia), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribal governments rear young shad in hatcheries and stock them in rivers throughout the region. Scientists mark the hatchery-reared shad before releasing them into the wild so they can track these fish in the future.
Hatchery programs have proven a successful way to reintroduce shad in rivers where they were once plentiful. Some specific examples include:
Watch this video to see how scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources collect hickory shad for their shad hatchery.
Removing dams and installing fish passageways is a critical component of shad restoration. When dams and other obstructions are removed, shad can reach their historic spawning grounds. In places where dams cannot be removed, scientists are installing fish lifts, ladders and other passageways that allow fish to pass over the barrier.
To date, Bay Program partners have reopened more than 2,000 miles of streams and rivers to migratory fish. However, dams and other obstructions still block hundreds of miles of historic shad spawning areas.
The Nanticoke Shad Hatchery raises American shad each spring.
After a long, cold winter full of snow, ice and disrupted plans, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is looking forward to spring.
What are American shad and why are they so important in the Chesapeake Bay? Learn how scientists are working to protect and restore American shad in our waterways.
Produced by Steve Droter
Stock Footage: Photography by Michelson, Inc. and Jim Thompson, MD DNR
Photos: Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-18896, LC-DIG-hec-06375
Music: “A Moment of Jazz” by Ancelin
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