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

Scientists record historic fish’s lowest abundance level yet in the James
Young shad in the James River.
Young shad in the James River.(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Published: Nov. 17, 2021 at 12:32 PM EST
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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. Every day 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 quieter. 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.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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