Species Spotlight: American Shad

Charleston District
Published Aug. 5, 2015
Of the species that pass through the Cooper River Rediversion Project’s fishlift at St. Stephen, the American shad has a storied past. State and federal agencies are working closely to help Atlantic coast populations in the future.

American shad (Alosa sapidissima) is an anadromous species. They live in salt water as adults and migrate back to the rivers where they were spawned to spawn themselves. Shad spend their first summer in freshwater and school up to move into the ocean. American shad spawned in the Santee Cooper system are known to migrate as far north as Canada’s Bay of Fundy to grow into adults. A full-grown female American shad that returns to South Carolina is approximately six years old and weighs approximately six pounds. In very early spring, adult males enter the rivers first, followed by the females, to complete their life cycles. Females can release as many as 700,000 eggs.

American shad are given credit for saving General George Washington’s army and, ultimately, the fate of the United States. During the Revolutionary War, Washington and his troops were spending winter near the Schuylkill River at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. That ferocious winter took its toll on the men and their food supplies were virtually gone. As the story goes, the early spring run of shad, which historically numbered in the hundreds of thousands, saved the troops from starvation. The rest is, as they say, history.

As one might expect, shad are subject to a harrowing migration. They are eaten by any number of birds and predator species in the rivers and the ocean. They also provide commercial and recreational fishermen from Florida to Maine with livelihoods and food. The fish themselves are planked or baked to dissolve the hundreds of small bones, while shad roe wrapped in bacon and pan-fried is considered a delicacy in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

American shad harvest was counted in tons at the turn of the 20th century. As human populations grew and required water supply and electricity, dams were built which blocked the species’ access to historic spawning grounds. Coupled with fishing pressure and pollution, loss of habitat has reduced annual harvest to a fraction of historic levels. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission notes that commercial landings of shad and river herring reached a high of 140 million pounds in 1969, with a historic low of 823,000 pounds in 2006. Coastwide recreational landings for the species are very imprecise, since most of these species are taken in inland waters, but the recreational data collection program is designed for water anglers. Some states do collect inland statistics but trends cannot be calculated coastwide.

Since shad migrate up and down the Atlantic coast, it is easy to understand that fishing or habitat regulations passed in one state could affect every other state’s shad populations. State and federal partners, working with the Commission, have implemented an American Shad Fishery Management Plan to facilitate discussion and agreement among agencies how best to manage the species and help it recover. South Carolina is a signatory to the Commission, and SC Department of Natural Resources personnel serve on the species’ management board and technical committee.

SCDNR biologists capture female and male broodstock shad at the St. Stephen fishlift and in the project’s intake canal. Those fish are taken to the Jack. D. Bayless Hatchery, located on the project property, where they are stripped and eggs fertilized. The eggs are raised to fry stage at the nearby Dennis Wildlife Center, which are then stocked back into the Santee Cooper system and other rivers around the state.

The St. Stephen fishlift was specifically designed to pass American shad and another member of the family Alosidae – the blueback herring. On average, approximately 350,000 American shad pass through the fishlift during their annual spawning migrations. With the an average of 450,000 blueback herring that pass annually, the St. Stephen fishlift passes more fish than any other facility on the Atlantic coast. The facility is very important to South Carolina’s shad populations, and the Charleston District works closely with their partners SCDNR and Santee Cooper to ensure successful passage of this important species.