This iconic fish nearly disappeared from N.J., Now it's coming back (and fishermen love it).
Above - Cody McLaughlin, fisherman and spokesman for the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, admires a freshly caught shad before releasing the fish back into the Delaware River in Trenton on Saturday, April 6, 2019. (Michael Sol Warren | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
Call it a poor man’s salmon.
Every year from February to June, the American shad run like 20-inch silver bullets up the east coast, pouring in from the Atlantic and swimming up rivers from Florida to Maine to return to their spawning grounds.
Hordes of anglers hit the water to chase them — for many Garden State anglers shad fishing in the Delaware River is as good as fishing gets.
"I’d rather crank on these things than a thousand-pound tuna fish,” said Dominic Troisi, the owner of Full Draw Bowfishing.
The fish are fighters, bounding in and out of the water as anglers of all ages try to reel them ashore. Most shad are released after being caught — the flesh is oily and full of bones, not so easy to eat — but some people still enjoy shad as a local delicacy.
Yet just a few decades ago, this scene was the stuff of dreams — these iconic fish had all but disappeared from the Delaware River.
A choking river
George Washington fed the revolution with American shad. That’s how the one popular myth tells it, anyway.
The story goes that it was an influx of these migratory fish that kept the founding father’s troops from starvation at Valley Forge, a major turning point in the war. While historians have determined that this probably wasn’t the case, it illustrates just how highly regarded shad are in American culture.
For decades before and after independence was won, shad were a heavily sought fish in the region.
The Lewis Fishery in Lambertville, which began setting nets in 1890 and has roots in even older fisheries, was once one of five shad operations in the town.
“Every town up and down the river back in the day, in the early 1900s, had at least one shad fishery," said Steve Meserve, who runs the Lewis fishery. His great-grandfather, William Lewis, was the fishery’s founder.
But then the river began to choke.
Starting around World War II, pollution from Philadelphia and Trenton drastically reduced oxygen levels in the Delaware River. Fish that tried to swim through the area were essentially smothered.
“They basically just deposited their wastewater directly into the river,” Brian Neilan, a biologist for the New Jersey Bureau of Marine Fisheries, said of the polluting cities.
As the river became increasingly uninhabitable, Delaware Bay continued to be a dangerous place for shad to live. No regulations existed when it came to the commercial harvesting of shad -- both in the river and out at sea -- and overfishing wore down the fish’s population. The shad disappeared.
“Shad are like canaries in the coal mine," Meserve said. "If there’s not enough oxygen in the river, they won’t come up. If you don’t have a shad run, something’s wrong with your river.”
According to Meserve’s records, the Lewis Fishery reached its low point in the 1950s. In two years, 1953 and 1956, the fishery didn’t catch a single shad.
“When the population of shad dropped, especially in the ’40s and early ’50s, all the other fisheries pretty much folded up," Meserve said. “There wasn’t any money in it.”
Road to recovery
Things started to change in 1960s and 1970s, with efforts to cleanup and restore the Delaware River. The Delaware River Basin Commission — made-up of New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and the federal government — was created in 1961 to manage and protect the river and its tributaries.
Then came the federal Clean Water Act in 1972. The law reined in pollution sources around Philadelphia and Trenton, slowly returning the river to a habitable state.
By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Neilan said, the American shad population in the Delaware River had again begun to spike.
The business of shad
That improvement only progressed so far. The Delaware’s shad population began to decline again in the early 2000s, according to Neilan. This time, the response focused on fishing.
In 2005, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission halted all commercial shad operations in the ocean. Today, any shad caught out there are byproducts of fishermen seeking other kinds of fish.
That same year, New Jersey put a hold on commercial fishing for American shad in Delaware Bay. It didn’t totally shutdown the fishery; fishermen with existing permits are allowed to continue harvesting the fish. But no new permits are being distributed, and the numbers of active, permitted fishermen declines each year.
Eventually, unless the moratorium is lifted, there will be no commercial shad fishery off the Jersey coast. It’s a far cry from centuries ago, when the fish were harvested by the hundreds of thousands of pounds each year.
Neilan said that commercial shad operations today are gill-netters working Delaware Bay, between Cape May and Mad Horse Creek in Salem County, in March and April. When the 2005 moratorium went into effect, there were about 80 active permits for commercial shad fishing according to Neilan. Now that number is down to about 40, and only about a dozen of those are actively used in a given year. Today, the market price for shad is about $6 per fish.
“The demand for the fish has really declined," Neilan said. "It’s not the huge economic driver that it used to be.”
Still, the recreational anglers are allowed to target the fish in the Delaware River, though New Jersey’s other waters are off limits for shad. Troisi said he catches between 500 and 800 of the fish near Trenton each spring, and that’s with just the 30 shad trips he takes annually. An annual shad fishing tournament in Philipsburg at the end of April drew about 1,000 entrants this year -- and $25,000 in prize money.
There’s even a lone commercial shad operation on the river -- the Lewis Fishery, run by Meserve, which supplies the fish for Lambertville’s annual Shad Fest.
Today, Neilan said that between 15,000 and 20,000 pounds of American shad are harvested out of the river annually.
Around 2009, just one generation after the commercial fishing moratorium went into effect, the fish rebounded again. Today, the American shad population in the Delaware is strong and appears to be strengthening.
A dam is gone, and the shad are back. After 100 years, the fish have returned to a Delaware River tributary.
The presence of shad is a sign that the stream’s health is improving after the removal of a 109-year-old hydroelectric dam.
Dam removals are the next chapter in helping the Delaware’s shad. Some of the rivers tributaries have man-made barriers that prevent the fish from returning to their native spawning grounds. Removing those dams has already shown to help the fish. Just last month, a shad was caught in the Paulinskill River in Warren County upstream of the site where a 109-year-old dam had been removed last year. The Musconetcong River had a similar success story in 2017.
“We probably have one of the healthier shad populations, by far,” Neilan said of how the Delaware River compares to other East Coast rivers.
That’s not just good for the anglers that dream of shad every spring; its great for the larger fish in the sea that feed on the oily fish.
“Basically everything likes to eat shad there,” Neilan said. “A healthy shad population is good for all the top predators.”