Shad: Our Failing Fish

Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2012 Grade F (9 on a scale of 70)

Inspired this time of year by the earliest signs of spring to carry on their ancient species, shad don’t know they’re failing the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s survival test.     
    They’re just doing what comes naturally.    
    That’s returning from ocean to Chesapeake to the river headwaters of their birth. To fish used to cold oceanic waters, 40 means spring. When water temperatures top that mark, they begin their migration from Bay to river. The spawning drive makes a fish impatient.
    You may not know much more about shad than they do about their status as one of 13 indicators of Bay Health on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s State of the Bay report.
    Shad were one of the great fish of the pristine Chesapeake, so abundant and easily netted that the American colonies survived on their tasty flesh. John McPhee writes in The Founding Fish that shad fueled George Washington’s Continental Army.
    In the last half of the 18th century, American shad — the best eating of the six species — was the Bay’s largest fishery, with catches up to 17 million pounds, according to Fishes of the Chesapeake Bay.
    Nowadays shad are much reduced from their historic population, protected as a no-keep fishery in the Chesapeake and most of its rivers.
    Such a loss! Not only to the fish but also to the ecosystem, to anglers and to eaters. Shad flesh is smoky, sweet and compelling; the granular roe inside the sacs rich and delicious as caviar though not so salty. I know because every year this time, when the shad run to the rivers of their birth, I eat a meal of the scarce delicacy.
    Fish caught in the Potomac are the exception to the ban. Cleaned by anatomists able to remove the many hair-thin bones yet leave the fillet intact, the fish element of my dinner cost $11.95 a pound this year. You must purchase generously because half of each fillet is dark meat and skin better fed to the cats. The succulent paired roe cost $25.95 a pound. Fortunately, their taste is so satisfying that even a very small set of sautéed roe is enough for a dinner for two — if you are extravagantly combining fish and roe.
    Eat such a dinner, and you will value this fish according to its true worth.
    The Chesapeake Bay Foundation values shad as an indicator of the health of Bay fisheries because, says scientist Bill Goldsborough, “They are representative of different aspects of the Bay system.”
    Shad go hundreds of miles up the watershed into fresh water to spawn. On their journey, they pass through what Goldsborough calls “sensitive lifecycle changes in the greater Bay system.”
    Shad biographer McPhee calls their journeys “heroic,” ascribing 2,000 miles a year to a “typical individual.” How far they travel in the Chesapeake depends on the location and length of the river of their birth. Up the Susquehanna, the Bay’s main stem, they travel as far as 300 miles.
    Yet these valiant travelers “are at their lowest point on record coast-wide,” according to Goldsborough, who is both fisheries director at the Bay Foundation and a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Shad Salvation
    How can a species bounce back from such a low?

American and hickory shad, once an abundant Chesapeake mainstay, are now caught in Bay tributaries to breed future generations in fish hatcheries.

    With more than a little help from the humans who set them back in the first place by overfishing, development and pollution.
    The process is as complex as the fish’s own spawning migration.
    Key strategies are four: restricting fishing, breeding in hatcheries, building fish passages and removing dams.
    Many remedies are under way. In and around the Chesapeake, shad fishing is much restricted. Commercial fishing is allowed only in the Potomac, where hatcheries are helping restore populations. Commercial ocean fishing is also restricted. In coastal waters, some recreational catch-and-keep fishing is allowed; in the Chesapeake, all shad fishing is catch-and-release.
    The Bay Foundation’s nine-point score tells us those restrictions are not enough.
    By-catch of shad in offshore fisheries directed to other species may be one reason restrictions are not bringing recovery. Shad territory stretches so far — from the St. Lawrence River to Florida — that managing off-shore fisheries requires cooperation.
    “Both the Mid-Atlantic and New England and the South Atlantic are grappling with the problem,” Goldsborough says.
    Hatcheries are part of the solution, “helping shad maintain their low or recover a bit,” Goldsborough says. The fish are fecund, producing 100,000 to 600,000 eggs in a single roe sac, so a little help can go a long way. In the Potomac River — where George Washington fished shad for pleasure — fish are captured on their spawning runs, their larvae raised in captivity in hatcheries and fingerlings released to survive on their own.
    Shad are also raised in hatcheries and released by the millions in the Anacostia, Choptank, James, Nanticoke, Pamunkey, Patapsco, Patuxent, Rappahannock and Susquehanna rivers.
    Free passage is another way we can help shad recover by enabling them to do what comes naturally.
    “We have to provide any anadromous fish — including both American and hickory shad and herring — access to its historic spawning grounds,” Goldsborough says.
    Maryland Department of Natural Resources counts over 2,500 constructed blockages between fish and their spawning habitat in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Under the Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 1987, 1,838 miles were opened by 2005, expanding to 2,807 miles by next year.
    Building fish ladders and elevators is small work compared to the alternative: removing dams, the three-hundred pound gorilla on many rivers.
    The Connowingo Dam between the Susquehanna and the Bay must be re-licensed next year to continue operation. Negotiating the license opens up lots of doors, windows and passageways for fish both up and down stream. Also part of those negotiations will be managing the sediment that builds up behind the dam, adding to the pollution that inhibits every species.
    That dam, built in 1928, is only one of many on the watershed, including four others on the Susquehanna.
    Mitigation by smaller-scale changes is the usual approach to helping fish around dams. But in the long term, Goldsborough says, “we should not take dam removal off the table.
    “Nobody,” he says, “said this was going to be easy.”