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 2012 were approximately 2.4 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 indicating that the stocks are currently at all-time lows and do not appear to be recovering. It identified the primary causes for the continued stock declines as a combination of excessive total mortality; habitat loss and degradation; and migration and habitat access impediments. Although improvement has been seen in a few stocks, many remain severely depressed compared to historic levels.
The 2012 river herring benchmark stock assessment found of the 52 stocks of alewife and blueback herring for which data were available for use in the assessment, 23 were depleted relative to historic levels, one stock was increasing, and the status of 28 stocks could not be determined because the time-series of available data was too short. Estimates of abundance and fishing mortality could not be developed because of the lack of adequate data. The depleted determination was used instead of overfished because of the many factors that have contributed to the declining abundance of river herring, which include not just directed and incidental fishing, but also habitat loss, predation, and climate change.
In 2011, the National Resources Defense Council petitioned NOAA Fisheries to list river herring on the endangered species list throughout all or part of the species range. NOAA Fisheries conducted a status review and found that the listing was not warranted in 2013. NOAA Fisheries is partnering with the Commission to develop a comprehensive conservation plan for river herring throughout its entire range (click here for more information).
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).
Amendment 3 also requires states and jurisdictions to submit a habitat plan regardless of whether their commercial fishery would remain open. The habitat plans outline current and historical spawning and nursery habitat, threats to those habitats, and habitat restoration programs in each of the river systems. The purpose of the habitat plans is to provide a record of the major threats facing American shad to aid in future management efforts. The habitat plans provide a comprehensive picture of threats to American shad in each state and include collaboration with other state and federal agencies (e.g., state inland fish and wildlife agencies, water quality agencies, U.S Army Corps of Engineers).
The two largest threats identified in the habitat plans were barriers to migration and a lack of information on the consequences of climate change. A key benefit of the habitat plans is that each river system relevant to shad now has its threats characterized. The habitat plans will be filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure that shad habitat is considered when hydropower dams are licensed. They will also be shared with inland fisheries divisions to aid in habitat monitoring and restoration efforts. In February 2014, the Board approved habitat plans for the majority of states and jurisdictions (see below for links to the approved plans). It is anticipated that habitat plans will be updated every five years.
State & Regional American Shad Habitat Plans -- Maine l New Hampshire l Massachusetts l Connecticut River l Rhode Island l Connecticut l Delaware River Basin l Maryland l District of Columbia l Virginia l North Carolina l South Carolina l Savannah River l Georgia