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American Shad

Alosa sapidissima

American Shad Fish IllustrationAs a harbinger of Spring, Shad travels the 152 miles of Hudson River Estuary from the George Washington Bridge to the Federal Dam in Troy, New York. The origin of the Latin name sapidissima means most delicious.

American Shad is the largest New York Herring variety, an important commercial and sport fish in the Historic New York Hudson River. Monitoring programs in the New York area have identified American Shad as a declining and endangered fish stock.

While a large number of Shad run up into the Delaware River, the biggest run is on the East Coasts Hudson River Estuary. The waters receive schools of Shad making their way upstream moving from salt water to the fresh water for spawning. The journey is arduous taking 8-10 weeks. This heroic effort by the fish is a remarkable example of natural adaption. The Shad adjust their breathing from salt to fresh water. There are biological changes in the gills and kidneys functions. The females do not eat, exerting themselves in completing their journey and in the production/laying of eggs.

Once the most important commercial fish, American Shad peaked in the 1940s and dramatically dropped to its present low. Harvest declined from 3.5 million pounds in 1944 to 101,000 pounds in 2001. Regulations do not permit any commercial or pleasure fishing of Shad in the Hudson River at this time. Catch and release practices are prohibited.

Fishing for American Shad was one of the oldest traditional industries on the coast of North America. At one time it was abundant and an inexpensive source of nutritious food for the people. In its current demise, Shad fishing has ended what once was a strong economic and labor opportunity.

Native Americans and the Early Settlers valued American Shad both as a food and for its benefits as fertilizer. In Native American folklore the Shad had originated from the porcupine who fled into the water and turned inside out. Shad is known for its overwhelming amount of bones.

The legend of the Micmac Indians is similar-porcupine was discontented and asked the Great Spirit of Manitou to change him into something else. The Spirit responded by turning the creature inside out and tossed him into the river where it now had the new existence as a Shad.

After a seasonal diet of woodland foods, tribes migrated to the Hudson River seeking the abundant harvest of Shad. There was feasting and ceremonial celebrations for the return of Spring coinciding with the yellow blooms of Forsythia.

Native Americans used brush nets and rock crib traps for fishing. These traditions were shared with the Early Settlers along with the best way to prepare the fish on oak planks close to the fires coals. Their knowledge sustained the Settlers after harsh winters months. Traditional recipes for cake fish, incorporating ingredients of corn and beans and serving the roe with acorns can be found. Wild Ramps and sorrel were foraged. Both the creamy male sperm known as milt or soft roe and female egg sacs were sought.

"Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River" painting by Thomas EakinsThere is record of American Shad sustaining the soldiers during the American Revolution. In culture renowned painter Thomas Eakins depicted Shad fisherman at work in the famous 1881 painting entitled Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River."

American Shad today is endangered. Spawning stock is experiencing excessive and unacceptably high mortality and that mortality has seriously reduced the abundance of adults and hence the production of young.

The industry, culture and celebration of Shad must focus on its restoration. The only way one can experience the values of Shad is by sparing it and building awareness. Festivals up and down the Hudson River dedicate their efforts now to conservation efforts with the proclamation Please dont eat Shad, Save the Shad.

Researchers have identified, among others, the following causes for the Shad decline: over-harvesting, water pollution, rising water temperatures, dam and railroad construction, dredging, and competition for resources by invasive aquatic species.

A Recovery Action Plan has been published outlining both short and long term objectives with its sites on rebuilding the Shad population in 2050 to the levels just before the decline-1940.

First image: American Shad, by and courtesy of Raver Duane, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Second image:Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River," by Thomas Eakins. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Ball State University Art Museum.

A Recovery Action Plan has been published outlining both short and long term objectives with it’s sites on rebuilding the Shad population in 2050 to the levels just before the decline-1940.

First image: ”American Shad,” by and courtesy of Raver Duane, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Second image:”Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River," by Thomas Eakins. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Ball State University Art Museum.

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