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The History of American Shad in Virginia

They’ve been called “America’s Founding Fish” because, in the past, the American shad was one of the Atlantic Coast’s most abundant and economically important fish. Shad were an important food source for Indigenous Peoples, early colonists, and generations of Virginians. George Washington took advantage of the bountiful Potomac River shad fishery by commercially fishing for shad, which provided both food and income for the Mount Vernon estate. Legend has it that an early shad run in the Schuylkill River (Pennsylvania) in 1778, during the Revolutionary War, fed Washington’s troops that were starving at Valley Forge, which in turn enabled them to fight on and help the United States earn victory. Though there’s little factual proof of that story, it’s a reflection of just how central shad have been to the culture and history of the country, and of Virginia.

Pre-Colonial Era
American Shad: Pre-Colonial Era

American shad were a staple of Indigenous Peoples’ diets, as evidenced by remnants of fish weirs in Virginia’s rivers. For Indigenous People, the spawning runs of shad each spring meant the difference between starvation and survival after the hardships of winter.

1600s and 1700s
American Shad: 1600s and 1700s

Early European colonists were impressed with the sheer number of fish involved in shad migrations, as evidenced by Alexander Whitaker writing in 1613: “The rivers abound with fish both small and great. The sea-fish come into our rivers in March… great schools of herring come in first; shads of a great bigness follow them.”

As the Europeans pushed westward, they continued to marvel at the abundance of fish that appeared each spring. Robert Beverley, a historian, wrote in 1705: “In the spring of the year, herrings come up in such abundance… to spawn, that it is almost impossible to ride through, without treading on them.”
European colonists depended on Indigenous Peoples to teach them how to catch and preserve shad, often hiring them to catch massive quantities of fish, which the colonists would salt and store.

American Shad: 1800s

Between 1750 and 1850, colonization grew the Atlantic Coast’s population from hundreds of thousands to two million people. Shad fishing became more commercialized and efficient, with larger crews and seine nets. In the 1840s, fishermen were removing more than 40,000 tons of shad from the rivers annually.

The demand depleted the American shad population precipitously. By the end of the 19th century, the annual catch of shad was just 4,000 tons of shad. Overfishing wasn’t the only culprit in the population drop. Dam construction on Virginia’s rivers in the late 19th century resulted in the loss of access to substantial portions of natural spawning grounds for shad. Pollution also had an impact.

American Shad: 1980s

Documented drops in shad populations resulted in multiple regional harvest moratoria in the surrounding Chesapeake Bay watershed.

1992 & 1993
1992 & 1993

The DWR and their partners at the Virginia Commonwealth University worked collaboratively to conduct American shad stocking research.

American Shad: 1994

Virginia placed a moratorium on the harvest of American shad from Virginia’s rivers and the Bay. In conjunction with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, a stocking program was initiated in an effort to restore shad populations to their former glory in Virginia. This project used state and federal hatcheries to reintroduce “tagged” shad fry into select tidal rivers (e.g. the James River) across the state.

American Shad: 1999

Bosher’s Fishway, completed in 1999, provides fish with access to 137 miles of the James River and 168 miles of its major tributaries. Not since 1823 could migrating fish, such as American shad, swim past the dam. Learn more about the Bosher’s Dam and Fishway.

American Shad: 2017

Between 1992 and 2017, state and federal fisheries agencies in Virginia ultimately stocked more than 100 million American shad fry in the James River. Although stocked fish were returning to the James, the total annual numbers did not demonstrate a trend toward a restored American shad population. Due to a multitude of factors such as offshore fisheries, invasive species, incomplete habitat connectivity due to dams, and water pollution, the American shad’s progress toward recovery in its native range continues to be limited. These impacts, coupled with a lack of dedicated funding, culminated in the suspension of the stocking program in 2017.

American Shad: Present

Although stocking of American shad stopped in 2017, the DWR continues its annual monitoring efforts for this species and other anadromous fish in Virginia’s waterways.

Other ongoing restoration efforts for American shad include fish passage projects throughout the Commonwealth to either remove or provide fishway access through man-made dams, reopening hundreds of miles of upstream access to migrating fish.

The DWR also works with a variety of partners to reduce upland erosion, and to prevent in-stream impacts to migrating fish and to limit anadromous fish losses associated with water intakes and discharges.