The American shad, that sturdy and popular game fish that provided easily available food for early North American settlers and supported an industry that once employed nearly 25,000 men, appears headed for a slow but steady comeback in the Potomac River.
"When we started this effort a few years ago," said Albert Spells, the Virginia Fisheries Coordinator at the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery in Charles City, Va., "our objective was to restore a self-sustaining shad population above Little Falls Dam. And we’re seeing that now."
Spells points to a number of factors in the shad success story – improved nursery habitat, the fish passage at Little Falls Dam, stocking, the harvest moratoria – all combined to push the population above Little Falls to a much healthier level.
The Harrison Lake hatchery stocked nearly 16 million shad fry in the Potomac over a 7-year period that began in 1995, an effort that ended in 2002 as biologists began to find that 15 percent of shad captured at upriver sites were hatchery-reared fish. That, said Spells, was a clear indicator of success.
"The shad story is the kind we love to see,"said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams. "When we get to the point that we can walk away, we know we’ve done our job. We’re delighted to let Mother Nature pick up where we left off."
Bans on shad harvest, imposed by the Potomac River Fish Commission in 1982 and the District of Columbia Fish Commission in 1994, remain in effect, but shad are fair game for catch-and-release recreational anglers, and Spells said the Potomac is now "a big recreational fishery." Each year, in fact, one of the biggest local events is the Casting Call staged by the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, when members of Congress are invited to try their hand at some shad fishing from Fletcher’s Boathouse, a popular Washington location.
Spells had no economic estimate of what the Potomac shad fishery might mean, but one study determined that if the shad fishery on the James River above Richmond were completely restored, it could be worth as much as $5 million a year.
"One of the great things about this fish," said Spells, "is that it's like McDonald's french fries – almost everything in the river eat them." Shad make for good table fare as well. When it was the premier economic finfish in the states bordering the Chesapeake Bay, it was sought primarily for its eggs.
And almost everyone still does eat shad, provided it’s taken from those locations that are not designated "catch and release" – there are shad plankings with strips of shad nailed to boards and baked by smoldering coals while being marinated in a special sauce; deep fried shad and shad fillets are available at some markets.
The Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t do the job alone. The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation had major roles, the latter incorporating their "Schools In Schools" program into the shad effort, which exposed hundreds of area high school students to the importance of restoration and let them raise their own fish for stocking. Other partners playing important roles include the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Fletcher’s Boathouse, the Potomac River Fish Commission, the District of Columbia Fish Commission, the National Park Service-Turkey Run Unit in Virginia and members of the Little Falls Fishway Task Force, which was composed of several Federal, State and non-governmental organizations. The Little Falls Task Force was a recipient of the Coastal America 2000 Partnership Award, which recognized the outstanding team effort in the construction of the fishway at Little Falls Dam. The fishway reopened 10 miles of historic American shad spawning habitat.
American shad are the largest member of the herring family and average between 17 and 24 inches in length and 3 to 6 pounds in weight. Shad are found along the Atlantic seaboard from Labrador to Florida and are most abundant on the East Coast from Connecticut to North Carolina. They spawned, historically, in almost every major river along the Atlantic Coast. Each female may produce from 100.000 to 600,000 eggs each season. Adult shad do not always die; many return to the ocean and migrate northward to feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine. They migrate southward in the fall.
Shad were harvested in huge numbers in colonial times and packed and shipped in barrels of salt, and were the mainstay of a huge industry for decades. George Washington was an early and avid shad angler, and legend has it that the shad was even an essential part of the American Revolution, at times providing substantial rations for the Continental Army.
"When one looks at where we started, at the cooperative efforts of so many people and you see real results – that makes the effort worthwhile," said Spells. "That’s when we can look at the river, at our hard work and all our support and walk away smiling. That tells the story."