Home > Ed. Web > Special Features > Shad Facts > American Shad Facts
American Shad Facts
American Shad (Alosa sapidissima)

 American Shad image.

 

 

 

 

 

 " . . . the American shad related to Philadelphia as the cod did to Boston." - John McPhee, The Founding Fish, 2002

Quick Facts
  • The American shad is the largest member of the herring family. Adults commonly reach four to eight pounds. The largest recorded shad caught in the Delaware River weighed eleven pounds, one ounce.
  • Shad are among the strongest and hardest-fighting of all fish found in freshwater.
  • American shad begin their lives in freshwater, like the Delaware River. After hatching in the spring, the young shad (called "fry") grow rapidly, feeding on freshwater plankton and aquatic insects. Decreasing water temperatures and cool fall rains trigger a mass downriver migration to the ocean. Once in the ocean, where they live most of their lives, shad will migrate up and down the coast, from their winter range off the mid-Atlantic to their summer range in the Bay of Fundy, off Nova Scotia.
  • After three-to-five years at sea, American shad will return in the spring to the river of their birth to reproduce, or spawn.
  • Fish that follow this migration pattern are called "anadromous." Fish like eels that live in rivers most of their lives and spawn in the ocean are "catadromous."
  • An American shad may migrate 12,000 or more miles during an average life span!
  • After living in the ocean, American shad are adapted to eating larger saltwater plankton and they feed heavily there in preparation for spawning. They do not eat during their return to freshwater, relying on stored energy to sustain themselves.
  • Unlike Pacific salmon, not all shad die after spawning. However, it is believed that half or more perish in the Delaware because the spawning run is a long, difficult journey and high energy is exerted. Shad that survive will swim downstream very soon after spawning (these shad are referred to as "downrunners"). According to The Founding Fish author John McPhee, fewer than ten percent of the downrunners in the Delaware River will return another year to spawn again.
  • Female shad are called "roes;" males "bucks." Often referred to as the "Poor Man's Salmon," the full-flavored meat of the shad is reflected in its Latin name sapidissima, meaning "most savory." Shad roe, or eggs from the female, likewise are considered a delicacy.
Did You Know?
  • The Delaware River is an important waterway for American shad, and their presence is indicative of the water quality improvements that have occurred over time. For decades during the 1900s, pollution robbed the lower Delaware River of the oxygen needed for shad and other fish to breathe. The number of American shad in the Delaware increased dramatically by the late 1980s and early 1990s due in large part to pollution control programs conducted by the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) and other environmental agencies. Communities, like Lambertville, New Jersey and Easton, Pennsylvania, now hold annual shad festivals in the spring to celebrate the shad's return to their local waters. In recent years, however, American shad numbers have slipped in nearly all river systems along the Atlantic coast, including the Delaware.
  • The fact that there are no dams on the mainstem Delaware greatly increases the American shad's success at traveling upriver to spawn.
  • Some say George Washington and his troops feasted on shad caught from the Schuylkill River (the largest tributary to the Delaware) in the spring of 1778 following their bitter winter encampment at Valley Forge. They credit an early spring run of American shad that year with helping to save the Continental Army from starvation.
    • However, in his 2002 book about the American shad, The Founding Fish, author John McPhee disputes this account. He writes, "With respect to George Washington, it would not have been a leap of imagination for him to anticipate the spring shad run and choose a campsite accordingly. He was a commercial shad fisherman. Moreover, he did not require Daniel Boone to tell him that the Schuylkill was a prime fishery. While another river might be half a mile wide, this one was small enough to string a net across and by 1777 had long been synonymous with shad." However, as a result of his research, he concludes, "The famine of Valley Forge, in 1778, was not alleviated by 1777 shad arriving in barrels. Nor, in fact, did it end as a result of the 1778 spring migration . . . The emotive account of the nation-saving shad is a tale recommended by everything but sources."

Image of Gen. Washington and his troops at Valley Forge.

2013 Update: N.J. Closes Most of Its American Shad Fisheries

In March 2013, the New Jersey Fish and Game Council, in coordination with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (all part of the N.J. Dept. of Environmental Protection) announced that N.J. was closing all of its commercial and recreational American shad fisheries, in both marine and fresh waters, with the exception of the Delaware Bay, Delaware River, and its tributaries. This means no possession or harvest of American shad in these waters; for the Delaware Bay, Delaware River, and its tributaries, recreational possession limits and commercial net regulations will apply. Click here for more details.

Why the Closure?

American shad stocks are declining up and down the Atlantic Coast. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) passed an amendment to their fishery management plan for American shad that states that unless a waterway has an ASMFC-approved sustainable management plan, recreational and commercial harvest of American shad is prohibited.

Members of the Delaware River Basin Fish and Wildlife Management Cooperative (Co-Op) developed a sustainability plan for American shad for the Delaware River (pdf 1.5 MB), which was approved by ASMFC's Shad and River Herring Board. The sustainability plan set benchmarks that must be met for the fishery to remain open. The Co-Op, of which DRBC is a liaison member, believes that while the Delaware population of American shad is not in the best of shape, it is sustainable and strong enough to remain open.

The news that the Delaware shad fishery is able to remain open when all others in the state of N.J. have been closed is a sign that it is in better shape than others. The work of the Co-Op and others will provide the monitoring and data needed to ensure that the approved benchmarks are being met.