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American Shad: Making a Comeback

The Rodney Dangerfield of Fish

In the words of the well-known comedian, American shad get no respect. Out west, where shad were introduced in the 1800s, some fishermen angle for them as something to do between salmon runs. Maybe it’s because they don’t leap up great falls, but American shad just don’t command the same standing as Atlantic salmon. They should.

An Important Protein Source

Native Americans taught colonists how to harvest shad in the spring, when they migrated up rivers along with other sea-run fish to spawn. Shad were an important protein source after the long winter. By the 1800s, American shad were harvested by the ton. So influential was the harvest, that “shadbush” was named because it flowers with the spring shad migration. The state of Connecticut officially named American shad the state fish in 2003.

.Today, commercial shad landings have declined dramatically and some states do not allow commercial harvest. Tribes still harvest shad for sustenance, and recreational fishing for shad remains popular.

American shad landed between 1950 and 2014


What happened to the shad?

American shad are an anadromous fish. Along with alewife, blueback herring, and Atlantic salmon, shad spend much of their lives in the ocean, growing and maturing. They can migrate great distances. Mike Brown of the Maine Department of Marine Resources notes that a shad tagged in the Narraguagus River, Maine turned up in North Carolina.

Each spring, mature shad migrate into coastal rivers to spawn. Their migratory behavior and life history exposes shad to a number of threats. Dams, pollution, and coastal development affect the ability of shad to reach spawning areas. At sea, commercial fisheries sometimes catch them as bycatch or unintended catch.

: John Sheppard of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries with a shad captured by electrofishing in the South River, Marshfield, MassachusettsJohn Sheppard of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries with a shad captured by electrofishing in the South River, Marshfield, Massachusetts. May 9, 2016. Photo courtesy of Christine Denisvich.

How can we help? 

The Habitat Conservation Division helps shad recover using authority we have under several laws:

On the Penobscot River: Dealing with the Dam Problem

The Penobscot River, Maine’s largest watershed, has been blocked by dams for more than a century. Before 2013, essentially no American shad used the fishway at the old Veazie Dam, the first dam blocking passage for fish headed upstream. Between 2010 and 2013, partners on the Penobscot River Restoration Project worked together to remove the Veazie and the Great Works Dam, the second dam. A new fish lift was installed at the third dam, the Milford Dam.

In the spring of 2016, more than 7,800 American shad passed through the Milford fish lift. This is a great start to a recovery to their former numbers. We hope to see similar success in other rivers.