Shad & river herring

“Shad and river herring” is a category that encompasses four closely-related species belonging to the genus Alosa, including the American shad, hickory shad, alewife and blueback herring. All are anadromous species that spend most of their adult lives at sea, but return to coastal rivers to spawn in early spring. River systems each host their own unique “runs” of fish that generally return to their natal waters to spawn, although some returning fish do wander into other streams, where they can serve to rebuild populations lost to dams, pollution or other causes.
The American shad is the largest and most valued alosine species. Large females can occasionally weigh more than 11 pounds, and the species was such an important food fish in the United States during parts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that author John McPhee dubbed it “The Founding Fish.” Hickory shad are far smaller, rarely if ever exceeding three pounds, and are much less valued as a food fish. The two species of “river herring,” blueback herring and alewives, are the smallest of all, occasionally attaining a maximum length of 16 inches. As commercial species, river herring are far less important than American shad, and are caught primarily for lobster bait, although some are smoked or pickled for human consumption. However, the primary value of both species is as forage fish, which are fed upon by a wide variety of fish, birds and aquatic mammals.
All four species of shad and river herring are included in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Shad and River Herring; the National Marine Fisheries Service does not manage any of the species while they are at sea, although it does limit shad and river herring bycatch in large-volume fisheries for Atlantic herring and Atlantic mackerel. Episodes of bycatch in such large-volume fisheries can cause significant harm to shad and river herring stocks; coupled with the effects of past overfishing, and restricted access to spawning grounds caused by dams, pollution, dredging, etc., the abundance of all four species has declined substantially. The health of the various shad and river herring runs differs from river to river. However, on an overall basis, both American shad and river herring are deemed to be “depleted” by ASMFC; no formal assessment of the hickory shad population has taken place, although abundance of that species also appears to have declined.
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