Shad and river herring are anadromous fish that spend the majority of their adult lives at sea, only returning to freshwater in the spring to spawn. Historically, shad and river herring spawned in virtually every river and tributary along the coast.
Shad young leave their home river within the first year and will spend the next few years at sea, schooling in large numbers with shad from other regions and feeding on plankton and other small fish or crustaceans. Upon reaching maturity – at about age four – they will return to the streams they were born in to spawn. Males or "buck shad" return first, followed by females or "roe shad." They spawn usually at night or during overcast days. In the southern range, females release as many as 700,000 eggs during the spawning season, but both males and females normally die after spawning. In the northern range, females typically release 300,000 eggs or less during the spawning season; however, most shad will return again to spawn in the following years, with some shad living up to ten years.
River herring is a collective term for alewife and blueback herring. Alewife spawn in rivers, lakes, and tributaries from northeastern Newfoundland to South Carolina, but are most abundant in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast. Blueback herring prefer to spawn in swift flowing rivers and tributaries from Nova Scotia to northern Florida, but are most numerous in waters from Chesapeake Bay south. Mature alewife (ages three to eight) and blueback herring (ages three to six) migrate rapidly downstream after spawning. Juveniles remain in tidal freshwater nursery areas in spring and early summer, but may also move upstream with the encroachment of saline water. As water temperatures decline in the fall, juveniles move downstream to more saline waters. Little information is available on the life history of juvenile and adult river herring after they emigrate to the sea and before they mature and return to freshwater to spawn.
Young angler with an American shad. Photo credit: Peter L. Groves, Woo's Shad Fishing
Species of shad and river herring once supported the largest and most important commercial and recreational fisheries along the Atlantic coast. Since colonial times, the blockage of spawning rivers by dams and other impediments, combined with habitat degradation and overfishing, have severely depleted shad and river herring populations.
Commercial landings for all these species have declined dramatically from historic highs. Commercial landings by domestic and foreign fleets peaked at 140 million pounds in 1969. Since 2000 domestic landings totaled less than four million pounds in any given year, with a historic low of 823,000 pounds occurring in 2006.
Landings in 2011 were approximately 2 million pounds. The decline in domestic landings has occurred in all states with commercial fisheries. In response to severe declines in population abundance, five states - Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Virginia, and North Carolina - have implemented moratoria on the harvest of river herring. Virginia's moratorium is only for waters that flow into North Carolina.
Recreational catches of these species remain largely unknown. The Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) estimates the numbers of river herring harvested and released by anglers, but estimates are imprecise, show little trend, and are deemed not useful for management purposes. MRIP concentrates its sampling strata in coastal waters and does not capture data on recreational fisheries occurring in inland waters. Few states conduct creel surveys or other consistent survey instruments (diary or log books) in inland waters to collect data on recreational catch of river herring. Some data are reported in the state chapters of the current stock assessment, but data are too sparse to conduct systematic comparisons of trends.
In 2007, the Commission completed a benchmark stock assessment for American shad that indicated that most stocks have significantly declined from historic levels and do not appear to be recovering. A benchmark stock assessment for river herring was completed in 2012 and indicates that the species has depleted and is experiencing a higher mortality rate than the benchmark rate.
In August 2011 the National Resources Defense Council petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list river herring under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In November 2011 the NMFS announced that the listing may be warranted. NMFS is currently gathering additional data on the stock status of river herring and a proposed rule is expected sometime soon.
Shad and river herring are managed under Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Shad and River Herring (American Shad Management) and Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Shad and River Herring (River Herring Management), respectively. Amendment 2 prohibits state waters commercial and recreational fisheries beginning January 1, 2012, unless a state or jurisdiction has a sustainable management plan reviewed by the Technical Committee and approved by the Management Board (see below for links to the approved plans). In February 2010, the Shad and River Herring Management Board approved Amendment 3, which revised American shad regulatory and monitoring programs. The Amendment was developed in response to the 2007 American shad stock assessment, which found that most American shad stocks were at all time lows and did not appear to be recovering. The Amendment requires similar management and monitoring as developed in Amendment 2. Specifically, Amendment 3 prohibits state waters commercial and recreational fisheries beginning January 1, 2013, unless a state or jurisdiction has a sustainable management reviewed by the Technical Committee and approved by the Management Board (see below for links to the approved plans).