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Nature's Bounty The Founding Fish: American Shad
American Shad (Alosa sapidissima)
American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) © Painting by Duane Raver / USFWS

Shad's historic, cultural, and economic significance earned it the nickname the "Founding Fish." Shad supported one of the most important commercial and recreational fisheries in North America and contributed to the local economy of East Coast river towns. George Washington was a commercial shad fisherman, and during the American Revolutionary War, shad was an important food for the Continental Army.

Preparing smoked shad

By Gabe Silver, James River Association

The largest member of the herring family is as American as apple pie. The American shad (Alosa sapidissima), in its legendary historic abundance and amazing endurance, has long since swum its way into our culture and hearts to stay. Shad returning to Virginia in March meant the end of winter hunger for indigenous people, colonists, and early Americans. So consistent and important was this fishery that the serviceberry tree came to be called the shad bush, as it reliably served notice of the shad run with its white blossoms each spring.

In the face of the devastations of dams, overfishing, and polluted waters, shad have persisted in faithfully returning to their home river to spawn. We now know that shad migrate each summer as far as the Bay of Fundy following ideal water temperatures and tasty zooplankton. Indeed, one shad may swim 12,000 miles over an average lifespan.

As wintering flocks of waterfowl depart, American shad are preparing to make their celebrated run into the James. Having stored fat reserves that hopefully will carry them to their spawning waters and back to the sea, shad swim upriver and begin to spawn when the water reaches 55o F. An individual female will release 30,000 to 600,000 eggs to be fertilized by milt broadcast by males. Fertilized eggs will hatch in 7 to 10 days and the larval fish will begin growing and working their way into near-shore wintering areas. Young shad are an important food source for larger predator fish, such as rockfish. Birds such as heron time their nesting to give their growing brood may the advantage of the tremendous inland influx of protein represented by the shad run. Being such a critical prey item isn’t good for survival rates, and its incredibly long odds that a fertilized egg will become an adult fish. If they do survive, shad will live in the ocean three to five years before making their first spawning run.

American shad sustain other wildlife species, commercial fisheries, and what has become a popular recreational fishery. Unfortunately, the shad population spawning in the James River is at only 6% of a healthy level (see JRA’s State of the James Report). The latest decline is not fully understood, and we need more research and better protection if we are to continue to benefit from this species in the future. For all that shad have given us, we owe them this much in return.


Click here to learn more about the status of the American shad and how the James River population compares with other rivers on the East Coast.



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