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Virginia scientists outline plan to save collapsing American shad population

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources
The decline of American shad in Virginia comes from a combination of factors: overfishing, predation, pollution, changing ocean conditions and the effects of damming the state’s rivers.

Read the original article on WHRO's website.

American shad was once one of the most plentiful and profitable fish on the Atlantic Coast.

The species served as an important food source for Indigenous people, early colonists and generations of Virginians.

Legend has it that shad, often called America’s “founding fish,” fed George Washington’s starving troops at Valley Forge and propelled them to victory.

But the species is now in danger of disappearing from the James River. The nonprofit James River Association calculated this fall that the population has dropped to virtually nothing.

“To have such an iconic species decline to this level is truly alarming,” Bill Street, president of the nonprofit JRA, said at the time.

The decline comes from a combination of factors: overfishing, predation, pollution, changing ocean conditions and the effects of damming the state’s rivers.

But a recent report from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at William & Mary outlines a path for restoring American shad in the James to historical levels. The General Assembly allocated $290,000 for it last year after a push from JRA.

“There's no silver bullet,” said biology professor Eric Hilton, lead author of the recovery plan. “You’re managing everything from humans, to environments, to a changing climate. All of these aspects are coming from all of these different directions. … But I think we’ve identified some specific actions that can be taken to help.”

It’s not an easy — or cheap — road to recovery.

Hilton said the shad population has been on a downward trend for decades. It briefly bounced back in the 1990s after a moratorium on shad fishing, but has declined in recent years.

A graph shows the changing population of the American Shad in the James River.
James River Association
A plan proposed by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science includes about two dozen suggestions to address the shad's decline.

For the new report, his team brought together “all of the stakeholders that we could think of,” including state biologists, local universities and Indigenous tribes.

They also mapped the bottom of the James River where American shad usually spawn. Shad prefer a hard, rocky surface for their eggs, but researchers found that much of the area is now “silted over” with mud.

Then there are other major challenges for the fish. Manufacturers or power plants that take large amounts of water from the river can often suck up shad eggs or larvae, and invasive predators like blue catfish feed on shad.

Higher water temperatures driven by climate change are also bringing shad to the area to spawn several weeks earlier than in the past, which could affect the amount of food available for them to eat.

VIMS’ plan proposes nearly two dozen actions, with a few common themes:

  • Improve habitat: Officials need to better understand how shad have historically used local habitat and what they need to succeed in modern conditions. The report recommends a deeper historical analysis of shad habitat, as well as possible restoration work.
  • Reduce deaths: VIMS suggests policy actions that could help lower mortality of shad linked to both catch-and-release recreational fishing and commercial facilities that remove water from the river — accidentally killing some shad in the process. The report recommends first studying the issues more to get additional data. Then officials could consider new regulations for these water intake facilities, like making the industry submit better data about the volume of water they remove or requiring the facilities to adopt technology to protect shad as a “fragile species.”
  • Expand monitoring: The group recommends extending the length of time that officials currently monitor the amount of shad, in order to better evaluate changes in migrations linked to climate change. They also suggest starting genetic analysis of shad in the James to understand genetic diversity within the population — and developing benchmarks to evaluate ongoing recovery. “We won't know progress if we don't have the data showing that progress,” Hilton said.
  • Create a shad hatchery: Hilton’s team proposes the use of some form of hatchery to boost the American shad population. A previous program run by Virginia and federal agencies re-introduced more than three million shad into the James River. That program was shuttered in 2017, but VIMS said the persistent failure of wild shad might require officials to try again. Stakeholders are reluctant of a state production-scale hatchery, according to the report. But the authors suggest leveraging partnerships with universities and tribal communities to develop smaller programs.
  • Examine effects of climate change: Climate impacts could throw a wrench in efforts to revive shad, Hilton said. Virginia needs to know more about how changes to temperatures and water chemistry — both in the river and out in the ocean — affect the fish population. 

If the state were to adopt all of the proposed actions, it would cost at least $2.6 million.