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Until Now, Conservation of Shad and River Herring Has Only Focused On Half Their Habitat

Why anglers support an important step in making conservation efforts whole for this important mid-Atlantic fishery

Each spring, the sportsmen and women of Washington, D.C., head to the Potomac River to shake off the rust of winter and take advantage of the return of the American and Hickory shad. This is a time-honored tradition—George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were shad fishermen—as Americans of all stripes have counted on the return of these fish for thousands of years.

But the shad run, which coincides with the river herring migration, isn’t what it was in the days of the Founding Fathers. Both species of fish spawn in the far reaches of rivers, but spend most of their lives in the open ocean, and are subject to threats and problems in both places. So, any effort to conserve the species and rebuild stocks must combine efforts targeting both their freshwater spawning grounds and their saltwater habitat.

Shad dart. Image courtesy of Steve Kline.

Shad dart. Image courtesy of Steve Kline.

For years, freshwater anglers have supported state-based attempts to address the challenges in rivers and streams: namely poor water quality and fish passages blocked by dams and culverts. Millions of public and private dollars have been spent on fish ladders and stream restoration up and down the rivers of the East Coast, and harvest restrictions have turned a once-important local food supply into an entirely catch-and-release fishery.

But stocks haven’t rebounded. At a time when our waters are literally full of conservation success stories, these highly migratory keystone species have remained stubbornly short of restoration targets. And fishermen and fishery managers are left to scratch their collective heads, wondering when the return on their investments might swing back upstream.

This is because the conservation puzzle for shad and river herring has been missing a glaring piece: the conservation of these stocks in the open ocean.

Visitors to Fletcher's Cove go fishing in Washington, D.C. Shad is a top draw at Fletcher's Cove in the spring. (Photo by Jenna Valente/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Visitors to Fletcher’s Cove go fishing in Washington, D.C. Shad is a top draw at Fletcher’s Cove in the spring. (Photo by Jenna Valente/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Generally, shad and river herring are not targeted by commercial fishermen, but they frequently find themselves in commercial nets as untargeted bycatch, mixed in with other saleable bait species, or thrown dead over the side. Without a fisheries management plan that includes shad and river herring, all of this ‘incidental’ take has gone unaccounted for, and no one could really say how many shad and river herring were being harvested as bycatch.

All the money and effort on the state side will continue to be unsuccessful if the fish can just be wantonly harvested on the open ocean.

This week, the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council is meeting in New Jersey to vote on a sensible step forward. By including these fish in a formal Fisheries Management Plan, the council could ensure that conservation efforts cover the shad and river herring’s full range, from the skinny waters of their early spring spawn in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia all the way to the open Atlantic. TRCP is strongly supportive of this overdue action, and we are confident that with this step, the conservation strategy for these historic fish will be made whole.

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