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American Shad

Fact File

Scientific Name: Alosa sapidissima

Classification: Fish, Order Clupeiformes, Family Clupeidae

Conservation Status:

Size: American Shad in Virginia waters commonly range from 13 to 22 inches in length

Life Span: American Shad in Virginia can live to 10 years in age

Identifying Characteristics

An angler shows off an American Shad. ©Alex Mccrickard - DWR

An angler shows off an American Shad. ©Alex Mccrickard – DWR

  • Elongated and deep bodied from the side, but quickly tapering near the tail
  • Upper and lower jaw are equally terminal when the mouth is close
  • Silver in color along the sides, with hues of purple and blue in certain lighting
  • An elongated anal fin in the shape of a sickle
  • A sharp keel along the underside

How to Discern from Similar Looking Species

  • American Shad are larger than the two river herring species in Virginia (Alewife and Blueback Herring)
  • Hickory Shad have an obvious underbite with a fully closed mouth
An image of four American shad for identification purposes

Four anadromous clupeids captured during a Virginia DWR Fish Passage efficacy survey. Moving clockwise across the specimens are an American Shad (top left), Blueback Herring (top right), Hickory Shad (bottom right), and an Alewife (bottom left). ©Photo by Alan Weaver – State Fish Passage Coordinator DWR


Juvenile American Shad found in the freshwaters and estuaries of Virginia feed on zooplankton and insect larvae. Adult American Shad primarily consume shrimp, but will occasionally eat other organisms such as small fish as they migrate throughout the Atlantic Ocean.


In Virginia, American Shad are native to tributaries of the Albemarle Sound, Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.


The American Shad is an anadromous species of fish, which means it spends most of its adult life in saltwater environments, but returns to Virginia’s freshwater tributaries in order to fulfill its reproductive cycle. American Shad are pelagic while in marine environments. Upon entering freshwater tributaries, American Shad migrate upstream in search of areas with clean flowing water. They often reside in deeper runs and river bends during this time.


American Shad return to freshwater tributaries in Virginia each spring. Broadcast spawning typically occurs atop sandbars or rocky riffles in about 5 feet of water, usually beginning at dusk and lasting into the night. American Shad eggs are neutrally buoyant, and remain suspended in open water until they hatch.

Threats to American Shad in Virginia

  • Bycatch
  • Competition with non-native species
  • Lack of access to historical habitats
  • Predation from non-native species
  • Water quality impairment

Virginia DWR Fish Passage Program

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) originally used a state matched EPA Chesapeake Bay Program grant (1:1 match) to fulfill the 1989 Implementation Plan initiatives for removing impediments to migratory fishes and restoring depleted migratory fish stocks in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

This includes employing a Fish Passage Coordinator whose job it is to identify, complete, and monitor fish passage projects. An Assistant Fish Passage Biologist, and a team of technicians provide assistance for this project work that is both timely and ecologically significant. This work is timely and ecologically significant. Coordination involves a multi-faceted approach to address migratory fish restoration in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay. You can learn more about the agency’s fish passage program by clicking here.


Virginia Marine Resources Commission

American Shad within Virginia’s tidal tributaries, the Chesapeake Bay, and along the Atlantic Coast are managed by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC). The Department of Wildlife Resources would like to remind anglers to familiarize themselves with VMRC regulations prior to recreating in these areas.

Last updated: April 22, 2024

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources Species Profile Database serves as a repository of information for Virginia’s fish and wildlife species. The database is managed and curated by the Wildlife Information and Environmental Services (WIES) program. Species profile data, distribution information, and photography is generated by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, State and Federal agencies, Collection Permittees, and other trusted partners. This product is not suitable for legal, engineering, or surveying use. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources does not accept responsibility for any missing data, inaccuracies, or other errors which may exist. In accordance with the terms of service for this product, you agree to this disclaimer.