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A Comeback for the "Founding Fish" in the Nation's River

Shad.SCDNRAmerican shad are fish that played a whale-sized role in the economy and diet of the American colonies.

They have a nickname, “the founding fish." The name comes from a story:

A school of these migratory, schooling fish came swarming up Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River in the spring of 1778 just in time to feed General Washington’s starving army at Valley Forge.

The ragged patriots waded into the river, beat the silvery tide with their swords -– and feasted on the shad to regain their strength and eventually beat the British.

Jim CumminsIt’s a well-known tale, and almost true, according to Jim Cummins, a biologist and Director of the Living Resources Section with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. 

The real story about the founding fish was more interesting, Cummins said.

“The British occupied Philadelphia and  Washington’s troops at Valley Forge were camped out northwest of Philadelphia,” Cummins said.  “The British had actually put block nets across the bridges in Philadelphia, knowing that shad could come up and feed the troops.  This was sort of biological warfare, at the time.  So the British put up block nets. But Washington, he had shad ordered from the Potomac River, and they arrived by wagon.  Shad did come and save the troops.  But they arrived by wagons from Baltimore.”

The tale is a long way of describing how shad were once nearly everywhere in American rivers and life. The fish grow up to about two feet long and migrate in schools. They spend most of their lives in the ocean, but return to streams to spawn. 

Shad are bony but famously tasty, and were a stable of local diets in the 18h and 19th centuries.  But they began to decline in the mid 19th century and were nearly wiped out by the 1970’s.  American shad were decimated by dams that blocked their spawning runs, overfishing with long nets in rivers, and by pollution.

Since then, however, the fish have staged a remarkable resurgence in the Potomac River, Cummins said. The number of young shad in the river has multiplied 50 fold since the 1980s, and the number of adults returning to spawn by five fold, Cummins said.

The biggest reason for the increase is that EPA forced Washington area governments to spend more than a billion dollars modernizing  DC’s sewage treatment plant. This dramatically cleared up what is sometimes called "the Nation's River" and allowed underwater grasses and fish to return, Cummins said.

“I think it’s a real success story,” Cummins said. “ I need to mention that shad are food not just for humans. They are food for a lot of critters. The rockfish eat them,as well as bluefish and a lot of other fish in the  Bay.   So when we are bringing back these shad,  it is not just for one species – the humans – to enjoy them again.  It’s really an ecosystem restoration that’s going on.”

Other factors helping shad have been successful efforts by Cummins and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin to catch, breed, and release young shad.  And also helpful to the fish have been bans on killing shad in Maryland and Virginia.  The migration of shad was aided by a project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a passageway for fish through a dam at Little Falls, west of Washington.

Bill Goldsborough, Director of Fisheries at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation,  cautioned that that the shad population has improved on the Potomac River, it still not close to a full recovery –- and remains at very low levels in other rivers, including the Susquehanna.

Barriers still remain to a true recovery of shad across the whole region, Goldsborough said.  Among the obstacles are fishing fleets in the Atlantic Ocean that  drag large nets, harvesting millions of fish to use in the bait industry, Goldborough said.

“There is a large-scale fishery, typically targeting stuff like mackerel or Atlantic herring, that also takes a bycatch of shad,” Goldsborough said.  “This is a problem that’s in need of a solution.”

Goldsborough serves on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is urging federal fisheries management authorities tocrack down on this indiscriminate ocean trawling. 

American shad have started a revolutionary comeback in the Potomac River, where George Washington was a shad fisherman. It would be unpatriotic to let fishing fleets choke off a full and widespread comeback for the founding fish.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation 

(Photo of shad at top from South Carolina Department of Natural Resources)


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To learn more about my comments on shad at Valley Forge, please see Joseph Lee Boyle's "The Valley Forge Fish Story." Shad Journal, Volume 4, Number 2, 1999. The Shad Foundation, Seattle, Washington. Mr. Boyle deserves the credit for uncovering the real story, I was just paraphrasing his research.

Thank you. Jim Cummins

Great stories!!

How about the trick of soaking in vermouth to soften the bones.

My bones get soft whenever I soak up a martini, I know that. So I assume the same is true for American shad.

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