American shad are the most well-known river herring in the Chesapeake Bay. Shad form an important link in the Bay’s food web, and once supported the most valuable finfish fishery in the region. But pollution, historic overfishing and the construction of dams that block the migratory fish from reaching their spawning grounds have lowered shad populations. Commercial shad harvest is now closed across most of the region. To restore shad to the region’s waterways, Chesapeake Bay Program partners are working to remove dams, install fish passageways and restock rivers with hatchery-raised fish.
American shad form an important link in the Chesapeake Bay food web. Shad are also part of the region’s history and culture.
Shad form an important link between the lower and upper levels of the food web. After hatching, young shad feed on zooplankton and insects. In turn, larger fish and birds feed on young shad.
Adult shad are also an important food source for large fish, birds and bears. The migratory fish spend three to five years in the ocean before returning to freshwater rivers and streams—including the James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna and York rivers—to spawn. These spawning runs, which take place in the spring, bring energy from the ocean ecosystem to the Bay.
Shad have played a vital role in the region’s history. Native Americans caught shad as a staple food, and European colonists kept barrels of salted shad in their homes. During the Revolutionary War, shad were deemed the “savior fish” that fed George Washington’s troops after the harsh winter of 1778. And the harvest of shad and other herring from the Potomac River supplemented the income Washington made on his Mount Vernon plantation.
Through the nineteenth century, fishermen flocked to the region’s rivers for the spring shad spawning runs. The fish were often prepared through a method called “planking”: tacking the fish to wooden boards and smoking them next to an open fire. Some communities continue to hold shad festivals to honor this tradition.
American shad once supported the most valuable finfish fishery in the region. But pollution, historic overfishing and the construction of dams that block the migratory fish from reaching their spawning grounds have lowered shad populations.
In 2007, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) completed a stock assessment for American shad that indicated stocks are at an all-time low and do not appear to be recovering. While the abundance of shad in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has improved—particularly in the Potomac River—populations in most of the area’s rivers and streams are below the Bay Program’s long-term goals.
As the watershed’s population grew, so did our impact on the land and water. Sediment washing off of farms, untreated waste leaving homes and factories, and polluted rainwater running off of urban streets polluted the rivers and streams that fed the Chesapeake Bay. While the 1972 Clean Water Act improved the condition of many local waterways, by that time, pollution had killed millions of river herring and made it difficult for young fish to survive.
Native Americans and European colonists caught shad as a staple food, using baskets, nets and traps to catch the fish as they swam upstream to their freshwater spawning grounds. Because the region’s human population was relatively small, the impact of these early fishing efforts was minimal.
Between 1750 and 1800, the region’s human population rose from 380,000 to 1 million. By the 1850s, this number reached almost 2 million. Larger crews and seine nets were needed to meet the market’s increasing demand for shad. Between 1831 and 1850, fishermen caught 41,000 metric tons of shad each year—equivalent to the weight of more than 500,000 human adults.
After the Civil War, an increasing and industrializing population demanded more fish and shellfish. Fishing gear grew larger and more sophisticated: pound nets and gill nets grew more common, while one seine net used in the Potomac River stretched more than six miles long.
Shad populations were severely depleted. By the end of the 1800s, fishermen only caught 8,000 metric tons of shad each year. Annual shad landings continued to decline, and by the 1970s reached just 1,000 metric tons.
In 1980, Maryland closed its commercial shad fishery. The Potomac River’s shad fishery closed in 1982 (with limited harvest opening up in 2003), and Virginia’s closed in 1994.
Shad are anadromous, which means they spend their adult lives in the ocean and migrate into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Historically, most shad spawned in freshwater areas that are now blocked by dams, culverts and other structures.
European colonists built mill dams across streams to raise the water level so that it would turn the wheels of water mills; these dams blocked shad migrations. As the nation industrialized, larger dams were built across bigger rivers. By 1940, dams and other structures had blocked access to thousands of miles of freshwater spawning grounds. In Pennsylvania, for instance, large hydroelectric dams effectively closed the shad fishery on the Susquehanna River. Around the same time, people began to fish for shad in the lower sections of the rivers where the fish had begun to congregate, further depleting the shad population.
To protect American shad, commercial harvest is closed across most of the region. To restore shad to the region’s waterways, Chesapeake Bay Program partners are working to remove dams, install fish passageways and restock rivers with hatchery-raised fish. The abundance of shad in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has improved—particularly in the Potomac River—but populations in most of the area’s rivers and streams are below the Bay Program’s long-term goals.
In 1980, Maryland closed its commercial shad fishery. The Potomac River’s shad fishery closed in 1982 (with limited harvest opening up in 2003), and Virginia’s closed in 1994. Recreational harvest is closed Bay-wide, although catch-and-release fishing is allowed.
Because shad spend much of their adult lives in the ocean, it is important 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, and has closed commercial and recreational fisheries in state waters unless a state has developed a sustainable management plan.
Removing dams, culverts and other structures and installing fish lifts, ladders and other passageways is a critical component of opening spawning habitat and restoring shad populations. As of 2013, Bay Program partners have reopened more than 2,500 miles of streams and rivers to migratory fish.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), several watershed states (including Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia) and the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribal governments raise young shad in hatcheries and stock them in rivers across the region. Scientists mark the hatchery-raised fish before they are released to track them into the future. As hatchery-produced adults increase, the wild juvenile population should rise in turn.
Hatchery programs have proven successful in reintroducing shad to rivers where they were once abundant. According to an article in the Bay Journal, scientists stocked about 15 million hatchery-raised shad in the region in 2014:
For Chesapeake Bay restoration to be a success, we all must do our part. Our everyday actions can have a big impact on the Bay. By making simple changes in our lives, each one of us can take part in restoring the Bay and its rivers for future generations to enjoy.
To restore shad in the Bay watershed, practice proper catch-and-release fishing techniques to avoid harming fish and follow fishing regulations to protect shad stocks.
Cleaner water is the cornerstone of shad recovery in the river.
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.
Based on the most recent data from the James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna and York rivers, the estimate of Chesapeake Bay-wide American shad abundance increased in 2013 to 41 percent of the goal.
The Potomac River has seen the most consistent increase of returning shad, reaching 129 percent of that river’s target. The York River’s shad abundance is at 23 percent of the target, the lower James is at 13, the Rappahannock is at 89 while the upper James and Susquehanna rivers remain at less than 1 percent.
In 2013, 33 miles of fish passage were restored. This brings the total to 2,576 miles, or 92 percent of the goal.
What are American shad and why are they important to the Chesapeake Bay? Bruce Vogt from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains how the watershed’s shad population has changed over time and what scientists are doing to restore the anadromous fish to our waterways.
Learn more about shad in the Chesapeake Bay Program’s online Field Guide.
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
Publication date: January 09, 2005 | Type of document: Adoption Statement | Download: Electronic Version
The Chesapeake Bay Program signatory partners commit to adopting the Fish Passage Goal, as stated: "During the period 2005–2014, the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions will complete 100 fish passage and/or dam removal projects, which will open…
Publication date: February 23, 2004 | Type of document: Backgrounder | Download: Electronic Version
Over the past two centuries numerous mill dams, hydroelectric dams and small blockages were constructed, which prevented fish throughout the Bay watershed from reaching their natal rivers. Migratory fish populations consequently suffered…
Publication date: February 19, 2004 | Type of document: Backgrounder | Download: Electronic Version
River shad have long played a pivotal role in the history, culture and economy of the states that border the Chesapeake Bay.
American shad constituted one of the most important mid-Atlantic fishery until the early 20th century, but by the…
Publication date: December 31, 1995 | Type of document: MOU/MOA | Download: Electronic Version
This Memorandum of Agreement establishes a general framework for cooperation and participation among the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Government of the District of…
Publication date: October 01, 1995 | Type of document: Management Plan | Download: Electronic Version
As part of the process of establishing accountability and tracking the implementation of management actions, each fishery management plan (FMP) is annually reviewed and updated. This report reviews the progress of management plans during…
Publication date: December 26, 1993 | Type of document: Directive | Download: Electronic Version
We the undersigned, adopt the Fish Passage Goals Policy in accordance with the Fish Passage Strategy adopted by the Executive Council in January of 1989. The Fish Passage Strategy states that all jurisdictions of the Chesapeake Bay…
Publication date: July 01, 1990 | Type of document: Management Plan | Download: Electronic Version
The Chesapeake Bay Program Executive Council adopted the Chesapeake Bay Alosid Management Plan in July 1989 to establish a framework for coordinated management of the Chesapeake's shad and herring fisheries. This implementation plan is a…
Publication date: July 31, 1989 | Type of document: Management Plan | Download: Electronic Version
The goal of the Chesapeake Bay Alosid Management Plan is to protect, restore and enhance baywide shad and river herring stocks to generate the greatest long-term ecological, economic and social benefits from the resource.