Tom Pelton served as Senior
Writer and Investigative Reporter
for CBF until April 2014.
We thank him for his service
and wish him all the best.
The American shad’s story begins with the story of America.
During Colonial times, hundreds of millions
of shad migrated like silver waves up
river in the spring. George Washington’s
plantation at Mount Vernon kept itself afloat
financially by stretching nets across the
Potomac River to catch shad, which were
then sold. Later, his army at Valley Forge
avoided starvation by feasting on the bony
but tasty fish.
Unfortunately, the shad population was decimated in the 19th and 20th centuries by
overfishing, dams blocking their spawning
runs, and pollution choking their habitat.
Since the 1980s, however, the “founding
fish” has staged a revolutionary comeback
in the nation’s river—the Potomac.
The number of young shad in the Potomac
River has multiplied 50 fold, and the number of adults returning to spawn has grown
five times, according to Jim Cummins,
a director and biologist at the Interstate
Commission on the Potomac River Basin.
One reason for the resurgence is that EPA
forced Washington-area governments to
modernize D.C.’s Blue Plains Advanced
Wastewater Treatment Plant. These investments dramatically reduced pollution in the
Potomac allowing underwater grasses, fish,
and waterfowl to return.
“It’s a real success story,” Cummins said.
“And it is important to point out that shad
are food not just for humans, but for a lot of
other critters, too. Rockfish eat shad, 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—
Bans on killing the fish in Maryland and
Virginia, as well as successful efforts by the
Interstate Commission on the Potomac River
Basin to catch, breed, and release young shad,
have greatly helped the restoration of this
species. The migration of shad was aided by a
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project 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 while the shad population has improved
on the Potomac River, it is still not close to a
full recovery. American shad remain at very
low levels in other rivers, including the
Susquehanna where dams prevent access to
hundreds of miles of historic spawning habitat.
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.
“There is a large-scale fishery, typically targeting species like mackerel or Atlantic herring,
that also takes a bycatch of shad and its cousin
the river herring,” 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
to reduce shad and herring bycatch on this
indiscriminate and damaging fishery.
Shad are showing signs of a comeback in
the Potomac. It would be un-American to let
offshore fleets choke off a recovery for the
A fisherman pulls shad from the Potomac River in the early 1900s.
By Tom Pelton