American shad coming back in Potomac River

American shad utilize large river flats adjacent to deep water channel bends as their primary spawning habitats and are not using the fish ladder at Pierce Mill Dam in Rock Creek Park. (Illustration courtesy of Duane Raver, USFWS)

WASHINGTON – Dozens of springtime festivals are devoted to this type of fish that is so endangered, it’s now off limits to fishermen. But in the Potomac River, the American shad is making a comeback.

The first-ever cap on fishing shad and river herring in the U.S. was issued last week by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Coucil, which oversees fishing in federal waters, reports The Washington Post.

It may seem like another in a long list of protected species — but along the East Coast, a ban on fishing American shad affects economies. Dozens of cities hold festivals devoted to the species every year, as the migration of shad signals the start of spring.

“In the past, they’d be harvesting the American shad in the rivers and they’d be serving them at the festival … But given the historically low status of the American shad and river herring in many of these rivers, they’re not able to do that,” says Kate Taylor with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Not only are American shad fun to fish, they’re also a commercial powerhouse, fished in large numbers along the East Coast. Now their populations are at historic lows, says Taylor, whose organization monitors fishing in state waters.

But, she says, it’s not all bad news.

“We did find the abundance (of American shad) in the Potomac River was at a low level, but we are seeing slow recovery in that system. For river herring, the stock status for those species in the Potomac River seemed to be depleted,” Taylor says.

Taylor’s organization, the ASMFC, conducts periodic stock assessments of 24 different species to see how the populations are faring. The last assessment of American shad was done in 2007. But, while the organization took stock of river herring in 2012, Maryland biologists also made note of the shad numbers, Taylor says.

Part of the reason the shad are battling to survive is due to the uncommon migration pattern the species follows.

Shad not only travel up the coast, but migrate from the ocean into fresh water to spawn annually — and that journey is full of pitfalls. The fish have to make it up streams and through dams, as well as past turbines and commercial fishermen just to reproduce.

“Unfortunately this is one of the instances where there may not necessarily be a silver bullet. There are so many threats that the fish have to navigate throughout their lives, but hopefully working with our federal partners, together collectively we’ll be able to address these issues,” Taylor says.

The fishing ban applies to both commercial and recreational anglers. So it’s not just professional operations, but a father and son reeling in an American shad have to throw it back, too. States issue guides to recreational anglers so they know which species are protected, Taylor says.

Four types of fish species fall under the fishing ban. American shad is the largest and most commercially significant of the four. The others are river herring, which include blueback herring and alewife herring and hickory shad.

American shad breed in river flats and don’t migrate all the way to streams to reproduce. They have not been seen in the non-tidal portion of Rock Creek since the District’s Department of the Environment started monitoring the water in 1996.

But the other three types do. And to help the river herring and hickory shad grow in numbers, the National Park Service installed a fish ladder at Pierce Mill Dam in Rock Creek Park.

The ladder — built as a series of steps the fish can climb to access the stream — was constructed using funding from the nearby Woodrow Wilson Bridge project.

Based on the initial population sampling taken before the ladder was built, it doesn’t seem that the ladder’s presence has made much of an impact.

“To date, DDOE has no evidence from the survey data that would suggest that the ladder has had any effect on alosine species in Rock Creek,” the DDOE said in a statement to WTOP.

See fish swim up Rock Creek’s fish ladder:

However, the ladder’s failure is significantly affected by the dwindling stock of river herring and the dry spring seasons that have reduced the opportunity for large numbers of fish to reach the creek, the DDOE explains.

Making matters worse, the ladder has been periodically closed for two years to keep out invasive fish like northern snakehead and blue catfish, according to a DDOE spokeswoman.

Snakehead specifically have never been found above the Pierce Dam and the National Park Service, working with the District, wanted to make sure it stayed that way.

“We limited the amount of time it was closed to allow as many river herring and shad to utilize the fish ladder during their peak runs while minimizing the risk of invasive northern snakehead using the fish ladder and investing Rock Creek above Pierce Dam,” says Nick Bartolomeo, chief of resources management at Rock Creek Park.

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