American shad on ‘brink of collapse’ in James River, says conservation group

Scientists record historic fish’s lowest abundance level yet in the James

By: - November 17, 2021 12:05 am

Young shad in the James River. (David Hopler, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

For centuries, the James River — the Mighty James, America’s Founding River, the waterway that sustained generations of Algonquin-speaking tribes and became the entry point for European settlement on the North American continent — came alive in the waning days of winter. 

Every year, the waterway that twists through the heart of Virginia suddenly would be transformed into a muscular line of flesh as schools of American shad numbering more than a million fought their way upriver 250 miles from the Chesapeake Bay to Lynchburg. 

The shad remembered the James River, where they had been born and to which they returned each year to spawn, and for years the bony fish loomed large in Virginia life. Watermen built a living on their backs. Political candidates stumped for office over wooden planks of smoked shad. Everyday folks kept recipes for combining their roe with eggs, toast, grits. Shad was so ever-present in Virginia and along the East Coast that writer John McPhee christened it America’s “founding fish.” 

But as the years have passed, late February and early March on the James have become progressively more still, increasingly more quiet. And 2021 was the stillest year yet. This year, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science detected the lowest levels of American shad its scientists had ever recorded in the James. In an annual report on the state of the river, the James River Association concluded the population is less than half a percent of a modest abundance target not achieved since 1984.

“America’s founding fish is on the brink of collapse on America’s founding river,” James River Association CEO Bill Street told reporters Tuesday. 

Scientists are quick to note that American shad haven’t disappeared completely from the James, but all agree the situation looks bleak. Weekly sampling done by VIMS during the traditional period of the shad run turned up only six of the fish on the James in 2020, compared to 310 on the Rappahannock, said VIMS scientist Eric Hilton. In 2021, that number dropped to two on the James. 

“There’s definitely more than 1,000 American shad getting to the city of Richmond,” said Alan Weaver, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources’ fish passage coordinator, who has been monitoring American shad for more than 28 years. But, he added, “I wouldn’t even want to say there’s 10,000 fish, because there’s a good chance there aren’t that many.” 

With the population dwindling, the James River Association says immediate action is needed: on Tuesday, the group called for the development of an emergency recovery plan for the species in the James, which it estimated would cost $290,000. 

“They belong here. They’re part of the ecosystem,” said Jameson Brunkow, the James Riverkeeper, one afternoon on the river in Richmond. “Their life histories are intertwined with the river.” 

“To lose something like that, your rivers are not the same,” said Mari-Beth DeLucia, a conservation manager with the Delaware-Pennsylvania chapter of the Nature Conservancy. “If we could just give them a chance, they would come back.” 

The James River at Rockett’s Landing in Richmond. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

A complicated fish

American shad, like sturgeon, are a complicated fish. 

An anadromous species, the fish — known as Alosa sapidissima, or “the most savory shad” — split their lives between ocean and river. During the annual spawning run, buck shad release sperm into the river and roe shad eggs. Once fertilized, the eggs drop to the river bottom, where they hatch. Surviving juveniles stay in their natal river until the fall, when they head to sea. There they will spend the next few years of their life, swimming hundreds of miles up and down the coast, until some instinct signals that it is time to spawn and they head back to the river where they were born to begin the cycle anew. 

Silvery, traveling always in great schools, shad have always been a key link in the riverine food chain: “Functionally, they’re an important part of the ecosystem,” said Hilton. “Shad and their relatives, they feed lots of bigger animals — think on the order of bald eagles, osprey.” 

Their abundance has also fueled human populations, which along the James not only ate them in large quantities but sold them. At its peak at the end of the 19th century, Virginia watermen were harvesting more than 11 million pounds of American shad annually. 

But despite their power and importance, shad are also notoriously sensitive. “If you look at them hard, they die,” said Albert Spells, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. “If you even pick up shad if you’re doing a study, they don’t like that,” echoed DeLucia. “They’ll often just drop dead.” 

Beginning in the mid-1970s, drop dead is exactly what huge numbers of them did all up and down the East Coast. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2020 concluded that “stocks of American shad in their native range along the North American East Coast are likely currently at all‐time lows.” Reasons for the declines range from decades of overfishing and dams that block fish from accessing their spawning grounds to poor water quality, dredging and industrial water withdrawals that kill large numbers of shad and their larvae. 

“I’ve never seen an abundance of shad in the Chesapeake, and I worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service for 40 years,” said Spells. 

Cluster of pressures on the James

Complicating the situation is that the health of American shad populations varies widely between rivers. Nowhere does it seem to be extraordinarily good, but in some rivers like the James it is indisputably extraordinarily bad. 

One phrase that comes up repeatedly when talking about what is depleting shad in the James is “death by a thousand cuts.” Policymakers have over the years experimented with different fixes in hopes of seeing numbers revive. The state moratorium on both commercial and recreational fishing of shad went into effect in 1994. Virginia ran a hatchery to restock the James with shad fry for 25 years but discontinued the program in 2017 after failing to see noticeable rebounds in the population. A fish passage was constructed at Bosher’s Dam above Richmond to help shad get around the barrier. The latter has been successful, said Weaver — to the extent that it can. “The fishway does a pretty good job of passing fish,” he said. “It’s just that there’s not a lot of shad.”

Four alosine species, clockwise from top left: American shad, blueback herring, hickory shad, alewife. (Alan Weaver / Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources)

Other pressures remain. Subpar water quality has led to the disappearance of underwater grass beds in the James where juvenile shad can shelter from predators. High sediment loads from runoff can suffocate eggs and larvae. Rising water temperatures linked to climate change or industrial inputs could also be having an impact, either directly on shad or on zooplankton juveniles rely on to reach maturity. And some invasive catfish that are known to prey on shad may be further depleting the population. 

Water intakes present a particular peril for shad. Many industrial plants, like those that cluster on the banks of the lower James, regularly draw in huge amounts of water for cooling, which can entrap and kill nearby fish. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 began regulating existing cooling water intakes at large power plants and factories, many intakes at smaller facilities go unregulated due to their size. 

“There’s a lot of intakes that are below that threshold, and we don’t really have a handle on how much,” said Hilton. “We just know there’s a lot out there.” 

More difficult for policymakers to grapple with is changing conditions in the oceans, where American shad spend the first years of their lives. “We know very little about their ocean life history,” said DeLucia. “A lot of the focus is in the rivers.” Scientists do know that losses are occurring from bycatch of shad, particularly related to the mackerel fishery, but how extensive they are isn’t clear. 

“I’d like to say there’s a silver-bullet reason for shad decline in the James, but there isn’t,” said Hilton. 

What’s needed, say many scientists, is more data — more comprehensive studies of what predators eat, more information on bycatch, more monitoring of water intakes, more knowledge of how populations are moving in response to environmental changes. An emergency recovery plan like the James River Association is proposing could also help galvanize efforts to restore the species before it vanishes from the historic river. 

“It’s a magnificent species worthy of investing in,” said Spells. “Without that species, this country might have been different.” 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]