On the Road to Recovery: American Shad Restoration

The largest of the anadromous herring (or “clupeids”) in Virginia is the American shad, which once migrated westward in the James River to Covington and beyond. The magnitude and sheer number of fish involved in these great migrations astonished early Europeans such as Alexander Whitaker, who wrote in 1613, “The rivers abound with fish both small and great. The sea-fish come into our rivers in March… great schools of herring come in first; shads of a great bigness follow them.” As the settlers pushed westward, they continued to marvel at the abundance of fish that appeared each spring. Robert Beverley, a historian, wrote in 1705, “In the spring of the year, herrings come up in such abundance… to spawn, that it is almost impossible to ride through, without treading on them.”

What happened to the American shad (Alosa sapidissima)?

The Latin name, sapidissima, means “most delicious” or “most palatable,” but to Native Americans and early settlers, the spawning runs of shad and herring each spring meant the difference between starvation and survival after the hardships of winter. By the 18th century, American shad and river herring had become one of the leading commodities in the colonial economy, but that’s also when problems began to arise for these fish. The increased construction of dams effectively blocked the upriver migration of anadromous fish. No longer could these fish make their way to upland spawning and nursery grounds. Faced with the challenges and changes of urbanization and industrialization, populations of American shad steadily declined over time. In 1994, a moratorium on the inland harvest of shad brought an end to the rich and deep traditions that both the commercial watermen and recreational anglers had enjoyed for centuries.

On the road to recovery

In an effort to reintroduce and enhance these fish in the James (while planning was on-going for fish passage structures at the Richmond dams), the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries began a restoration program in 1992 which continues today. This project is using a hatchery stocking program to reintroduce “tagged” shad fry into the upper James River system, and a similar restoration effort was also started on the Rappahannock River in 2003. Hatchery reared fry raised from springtime Pamunkey River brood stock are being stocked in the James River system and egg taking operations on the Potomac River, in the vicinity of Fort Belvoir, are providing hatchery fry production used to stock the Rappahannock River system. The Potomac collections are performed through a partnership with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. As mitigation for egg collections, the Pamunkey and Potomac rivers also receive annual fry stockings.

Recent and total fry stockings are given in the following table:

Year River Number of Fry Stocked
2012 James 5,352,847
Potomac 536,942
Rappahannock 5,994,820
Total Per River System James 119,531,401
Pamunkey 27,476,111
Potomac 6,203,420
Rappahannock 40,291,256
Grand Total 193,502,188

Monitoring of adult American shad returning to spawn in the James River has shown that the stockings have been extremely successful. The population of American shad returning to the James has increased dramatically, a large majority of the returning adults are from fry stockings, and we are now seeing adult fish that are the offspring of hatchery fish that returned and successfully spawned in the river. These are positive signs that restoration efforts for American shad on the James River are working.

How did we get there?

By March 15 of each year, biologists from the Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are busy monitoring water temperatures in Virginia’s tidal rivers as hatchery crews busily prepare themselves to receive the first shad eggs of the season. As water temperatures rise into the low to mid 50s, shad actively begin to spawn, creating a flurry of activity by all those involved in the project. Lengthening days and warming water temperatures find biologists and commercial fishermen hard at work collecting brood stock shad for egg-taking operations. Using floating gill nets, the watermen lay out a webbed wall that moves with the tide. The nets move through a section of river (“driving the reach”) a short time before the tide reaches the ebb, or slack, tide, to collect spawning fish. Generally, tides only run over a 4-hour period, giving the egg-taking crews small windows of opportunity. Shad spawn primarily from late evening until midnight, requiring most of the work to be done at night.

Most male shad collected each evening are ready to spawn, but not all females. Those that are not, are released back into the river. Females in spawning condition and releasing eggs freely (“flowing”) are quickly removed from the nets by the watermen and placed on boats with live wells. The broodstock are then taken to shore where the egg-taking process is done. Flowing fish are manually spawned into bowls by massaging the fish’s belly. Water is then added to the bowls, which activates the sperm and fertilizes the eggs. Egg fertilization rates can be improved from 5-35% in the wild to as much as 95% through this manual spawning effort.

Once fertilized, the eggs are placed in water-filled tubs and left undisturbed for a one-hour period. During that time, the eggs will absorb water and swell to twice their original size — a process known as becoming “water hardened.” During this time, biologists are also collecting information about the adult fish to find out more about the age and growth of American shad spawning in the state.

Once water-hardened, the eggs are then placed in oxygen-filled bags and taken to the hatchery. There, the eggs are counted before being placed into hatching jars to incubate until hatched. The young shad, or fry, hatch in 6 to 8 days, depending on water temperatures. The jars are then placed into 200-gallon circular tanks where the fry will remain for the next 3 to 7 days. During their stay at the hatchery, the fry are fed a combination of brine shrimp and salmon starter feed and marked with a permanent tag. Tagging hatchery-raised fish is necessary to distinguish them from wild fish, allowing biologists to evaluate the success of their restoration efforts. After 3 to 7 days, the fry are loaded back into trucks and are stocked into the James and Rappahannock rivers and their tributaries.

State and federal wildlife agencies often use hatchery operations in recovery efforts of suppressed fish populations. Such efforts are not intended to sustain a troubled fishery, but are designed to give recovery efforts a head start. The road to recovery for Virginia’s American shad populations will be a long and difficult one. The cooperation, dedication, and hard work between all of the partners, including the commercial watermen, is testimony to the importance and sense of urgency that is needed for recovery efforts of this magnificent and most beneficial fish.

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