American shad are the most well-known river herring in the Chesapeake Bay and form an important link in the Bay food web. But pollution, historic overfishing and the construction of dams that block the migratory fish from reaching their spawning grounds have lowered shad populations. Once supporting the most valuable finfish fishery in the region, commercial harvest of shad is now closed across most of the region. By removing dams, installing fish passageways and restocking rivers with hatchery-raised fish, our partners are working to restore shad to the region’s waterways.
Why are shad important?
Not only do American shad form an important link in the Chesapeake Bay food web, the fish are also an integral 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.
History and culture
For hundreds of years, 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. 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 festivals to honor this tradition.
What issues threaten American shad?
Once the most valuable finfish fishery in the Chesapeake Bay, pollution, historic overfishing and the construction of dams that block the migratory fish from reaching their spawning grounds have lowered shad populations, and commercial harvest of shad is now closed across much of the region.
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 has improved in the Potomac River, populations in most of the area’s rivers and streams are below long-term goals.
As the region’s population grows, so does 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.
How are shad being protected and restored?
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 in the Potomac River, but populations in most of the area’s rivers and streams are below long-term goals.
Restricting shad harvest
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.
Opening fish habitat
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. Between 2012 and 2017, Bay Program partners have opened more than 1,200 miles of streams and rivers to migratory fish.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), several area 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 the Bay Journal, scientists stocked about 15 million hatchery-raised shad in the region in 2014:
- The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control stocked 531,000 shad in the Nanticoke River.
- The District Department of the Environment stocked 1 million shad in the Anacostia River.
- The Maryland Department of Natural Resources stocked 1.86 million shad in the Choptank River (including 1.39 million larvae and 560,000 juveniles) and 169,000 in the Patapsco (including 90,000 larvae and 70,000 juveniles).
- The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocked 3.8 million shad in various Susquehanna River tributaries.
- The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, released 3.3 million shad in the James River and 4.7 million in the Rappahannock.
- The Pamunkey and Mattaponi Indian tribes stocked smaller numbers on the York River.
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.