NANFA-- shad basics

Christopher Scharpf (
Sun, 27 Feb 2000 18:12:37 -0400

Sajjad Lateef asked

> I have read with interest the discussion on Shad Genetics.

I'm glad someone is finding this interesting! :-)

>However, I don't know much about these small minnows (other than the fact
>that they are used as bait).

Actually, they're not minnows. They are members of the family
Clupeidae--herrings, shads, sardines, pilchards, sprats, and menhaden
(collectively called clupeids). And they are used for more than just bait. When
fishery statistics are reviewed worldwide, no other group of fishes is harvested
more, and consumed more, by man.

Among North America's freshwater clupeids, the American shad has been the most
economically significant. Shads provided food and fertilizer for Native
Americans and early European settlers. Although shads were initially shunned by
white man in favor of Atlantic salmon, colonists eventually discovered the tasty
roe of female American shad and learned how to properly fillet and prepare their
bone-filled bodies. Canned, pickled, smoked, salted, canned, or planked (broiled
over a charcoal fire), the American shad lives up to its scientific name--Alosa
sapidissima means "most delicious shad." Shad fishing quickly became a large and
integral part of the growing economies along the mid-Atlantic Coast, with
thousands of fishermen each trapping thousands of migrating shad a day in the
18th and 19th-centuries.

American shad even played a minor role in the American Revolution; salted shad
from the Delaware River are said to have sustained George Washington's troops at
Valley Forge during the long, cold winter of 1776.

Because of their low price and excellent flavor, shad were sometimes called
"poor man's salmon." Their roe is an annual rite of spring for many easterners,
while some recreational anglers enjoy shad as a good fighter at the end of a

Gizzard shad (genus Dorosoma) -- which we caught plenty of in Illinois -- are
sometimes used as bait.

> Would someone educate me on the importance of shad in the ecosystem?

The ecological importance of shads (genus Alosa) cannot be emphasized enough.
Freshwater ecosystems, by their very nature, lose energy and nutrients to the
ocean; they're literally washed downstream. But anadromous fishes like shads are
one way for energy and nutrients from the ocean to transfer back into fresh
water. One study has shown that decomposing post-spawning alewives stimulate
microbial activity that releases the vast supply of energy stored in the autumn
leaves that litter stream bottoms during the spring. In addition, shad eggs and
young provide an abundant food source for freshwater fishes. How abundant?
Consider this: One ecologist estimated June abundance of blueback herring larvae
in the Hudson River Valley to exceed 85 BILLION individuals, and American shad
larvae at 168 million individuals. In the ocean, shads are undoubtedly preyed
upon by many species including sharks, tunas, seals, and porpoises.

And in their respective food chains, gizzard shads (genus Dorosoma) serve as a
short and efficient link between microscopic plant life and larger predators.
Occasional massive die-offs of Dorosoma provide an important source of food for
waterfowl, wading birds, and avian predators such as bald eagles.

There's a great quote from ichthyologist Gareth Nelson:

"³Low on the food chain, clupeoids tend toward abundance, as if their purpose in
life was to be eaten.²

Indeed, pound for pound, clupeids are arguably the most important fishes in the

Hope this helps,

Chris "Shadtastic!" Scharpf
Baltimore (the city on the Bay, once the site of the greatest shad fishery in
the world)

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