Meet the Fish that Feeds the Atlantic (& the Folks Who Study It)
The American shad averages four pounds of sleek, silver-blue fish, its scales pearly and thumbnail-sized, its deep body tapering to a highly forked tail – practically the archetypal fish shape.
This is the fish that was once so plentiful it fed the United States through a century of statehood and earned George Washington his livelihood as a commercial fisherman in the Potomac River.*
These days, smaller numbers of shad continue to run the rivers of the East Coast each spring. Though shad roe remains a seasonal specialty prized by many, the meat of the fish itself no longer enjoys near the popularity it did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it fed presidents and paupers alike. In fact, if you ask some biologists, the American shad has become an under-appreciated fish.
That’s because shad still plays a critical ecological role along the Atlantic coast, feeding countless other fish and marine animals, if not humans.
Shad is one of those rare species that has the fascinating ability to travel between fresh and salt waters. Larval shad start out their lives in the upper reaches of river systems ranging from Florida north to Newfoundland. As juveniles, they begin the downstream trek to the Atlantic Ocean, where they school and migrate astonishing distances each year to spend their summers in the Canadian Bay of Fundy. As fully grown adults, they then return to the rivers in which they were born to reproduce, starting the cycle anew. On average, the cycle takes 4-6 years for shad born in South Carolina rivers.
At every step along the way, shad become prey for other fish, large birds, and even mammals like the river otter and black bear. From freshwater rivers and lakes to brackish estuaries to open ocean, shad help support healthy food webs. If you care about largemouth bass or yellowfin tuna, American shad deserve your attention as well.
Unfortunately, a host of threats – polluted waters, habitat destruction, overfishing – have led to serious declines of shad in many places across its range. In addition to shad restoration stocking programs in the Edisto and Santee River basins, South Carolina also has a fishery management plan for shad to ensure commercial and recreational harvests do not exceed sustainable levels.
Catching the Founding Fish
In South Carolina, while once plentiful statewide, shad are now primarily found in three river systems: the Waccamaw/Great Pee Dee, Santee and Savannah. Every spring, when the shad are running in those rivers, a small team of South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) biologists brave the cold to collect information on the fish returning to spawn. They take measurements and genetic samples, note the sex and tag each fish with a unique plastic dart to monitor harvest levels and help track its movements.
The SCDNR shad team uses gillnets to catch the shad before they’ve spawned. Each gillnet is tied by hand, an arduous process that takes several days to complete. It’s well worth the effort, though, according to biologist Allan Hazel: the result is a net customized exactly to their needs, one the staff knows inside and out and will treat with care.
The net used in the Waccamaw River stretches 435 feet in length, with small, orange floats at top and weighted metal rings along the bottom. The team deploys the net across part of the river and lets it drift for a set distance, then lugs it in by hand, processing fish along the way. Though shad are the target, the net also sometimes brings in longnose gar, Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon (for which the biologists have federal permits to safely measure, tag and release), and other fish.
Most shad can be gingerly disentangled by expert hands, but occasionally a fish gets so snarled in the mesh that the plastic webbing needs to be popped to release them. It’s rough on the hands – especially when combined with the sharp keel of a shad – but the delicacy of the work means that it can’t effectively be done with gloves on.
“When it’s the net versus your hand, the net always wins,” Hazel said. The result can be tiny lacerations in finger creases, on knuckles, and in the flesh of palms. The best day for cuts, the team agrees, is Friday – because that means they’ve got the entire weekend for their skin to heal. Otherwise, they’re back to net-pulling the next day, and the thin plastic filaments pull right through yesterday’s wounds.
Deploy net, retrieve net, measure fish, and repeat – over and over, day after day. Like much of the work conducted by SCDNR fisheries biologists, it’s a process that becomes engrained in the subconscious and muscle memory of the hands. When shad team members Kayla Rudnay and Andrew Watson close their eyes at night, they see the silver flash of fish tails. They see netting, their brains unconsciously working through the best path to disentanglement.
What keeps them in the challenging line of work – Allan Hazel is going on 29 years with the SCDNR – is the clear camaraderie, the freedom of working on the water, and the love for an underdog species like shad. And on the drive home, after a brutally cold day on the water, a daily dose of hot boiled peanuts doesn’t hurt either.
LEARN MORE ABOUT SHAD
*Almost everything that can be said about the American shad has already been said – and said masterfully – by science writer John McPhee. His book The Founding Fish is an exhaustive exploration of the species and a must-read for anyone interested in America’s early food history, shad fishing, or fish science in general.