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Shad: the Forgotten Fishery

American Shad in the Susquehanna River...

From The Chesapeake Bay Foundation

"Just as the sacred cod of Massachusetts is the accepted emblem of the Bay State, so the shad may rightly be considered the piscatorial representative of the states bordering the Chesapeake."

–Rachel Carson, Baltimore Sun, 1936


From Colonial times until the 1930s, the American shad was the dominant fishery in the Chesapeake Bay. The springtime return of huge schools of migratory shad to their rivers of origin was a major biological event and an important part of Chesapeake culture. One early account described the importance of shad throughout the watershed: "there were no dams barring access to the highest reaches of the rivers and no cities and factories to discharge pollution, so that the river herring and shad made their way far inland even to the Blue Ridge mountains. There the pioneers awaited them eagerly each spring and salted down a supply to tide them over till next run.

Yet as the colonial period progressed, the essential spawning grounds in tributaries throughout the watershed did become blocked by dams and degradedly pollution. Virginia was compelled as early as 1761 to pass "an act to oblige the owners of mills, hedges, or stone-stops, on sundry rivers therein mentioned, to make openings or slopes therein for the passage of fish." Another early account suggested, "the clearing of the country, and the consequent muddying of the streams, had destroyed [shad and herring].

Overfishing was a problem particularly during the last century when fishing methods became more efficient. A report on the decline of shad by the Maryland Conservation department in 1939 included the grim statement that, "the Bay is literally strewn with fishing gears, most of which are set to catch fish all day and all night, throughout the season, thus not giving [shad] access to the breeding grounds.

The decline of the shad fishery over many decades to the point of a prohibition on shad fishing in the Bay has meant the loss of a cultural treasure. The highly regarded "first of the year" for recreational anglers, the springtime mainstay of commercial watermen, and the seasonal favorite of seafood connoisseurs have all been lost. Because these traditions finally faded with the shad in the 1960s and the 1970s, few people today under the age of 40 have ever even heard of shad.

While the abundance of shad in the Chesapeake is at a historic low, there is reason to believe that this formerly valuable resource can be restored. Public support is needed in the following four(4) areas:

Efforts to remove stream obstructions or install fishways at dams have restored access to 344 miles of spawning habitat, It is hoped that another 1,000 miles will be reopened by the year 2003 through the continued efforts of government, industry, and citizen groups.<

The quality of shad spawning habitat is receiving increasing attention from state and federal agencies and environmentalists, who hope to restore wetlands and forest buffers and address other sources of water quality problems.

Conservation of remnant shad populations is expected to be a major goal of new coastal fishery management plan. The plan is being developed under a federal law that will require all states within the shad’s migratory range to comply.

The production of shad hatcheries is being perfected. The use of this approach to restock Chesapeake tributaries may be expanded.





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