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What is a Shad?

By B. Koch
Updated May 21, 2024
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Shad, also known as river herring, is a type of fish in the genus Alosa. They are native to North America and can live in saltwater or freshwater. There are many different types, including the American shad and the gizzard shad.

The many varieties of this fish include the American, gizzard, threadfin and hickory shad, as well as the blueback herring and the shipjack herring. Some of these fish live in the ocean, while others live in fresh or brackish waters. Different varieties can be found in the oceans around North America as well as in many North American rivers. Some of the varieties are not good to eat and are mainly used for sport fishing and then released.

Many, although not all, varieties of shad are andromous. This means that they spend much of their life in the ocean but return to fresh water rivers once a year to spawn. It is not unusual for these fish to return every year to the river where they were born. Depending on the region, spawning may occur as early as November, in warm climates, or as late as July, in cooler climates such as Canada.

The American shad is the largest variety and typically reaches 20-24 inches (50.8 – 60.96 centimeters) in length. It has been known, however, to be as long as 30 inches (76.2 centimeters). These fish are silver with dark spots on their sides and scutes, or sharp, saw-like scales, on their underside. The mouth closes in a “V” shape with the lower jaw not extending beyond its upper jaw. The American shad is also known as the white, common, or Atlantic shad and is a popular fish for cooking and eating.

The gizzard shad is found in eastern North American rivers. Unlike the andromous American shad, the gizzard shad lives year round in rivers and reservoirs. These fish are not considered good for eating but are caught for sport and used as bait for other types of fish. Typically, these fish grow to be between 9-14 inches (22.86-35.56 centimeters) long, though they may reach 20 inches (50.8 centimeters), and rarely exceed 3 pounds (1.36 kilograms). Their scales are sliver-blue at the top but become white on the sides and underside.

Historically, shad was a very popular fish for both commercial reasons and for sport. Over time, however, their numbers in North America have dropped significantly. This is mainly due to human modifications to their habitat. Dams block the ability of fish to swim upriver to spawn, and water pollution has also prevented spawning. They are threatened by overfishing as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a shad?

A shad is a type of migratory fish belonging to the family Clupeidae, which also includes herring and sardines. Shads are anadromous, meaning they spend most of their life in the ocean but return to freshwater rivers to spawn. The American shad (Alosa sapidissima) is the most well-known species, celebrated for its historical significance and role in ecosystems.

Where can shad be found?

Shad species are primarily found in the North Atlantic Ocean, but they migrate along the coasts and into rivers of North America and Europe. The American shad, for instance, is native to the Atlantic coast of North America, from Newfoundland to Florida, and they are known to travel up rivers like the Hudson and Connecticut for spawning.

Why are shad important to the ecosystem?

Shad play a crucial role in aquatic ecosystems as a food source for larger predators such as birds, marine mammals, and sportfish. Their annual spawning runs also contribute to the nutrient cycle in rivers and estuaries, supporting a diverse range of species. Additionally, shad are considered indicator species, reflecting the health of their marine and freshwater habitats.

What do shad eat?

Shad are filter feeders, consuming primarily plankton, small crustaceans, and occasionally small fish. Their diet allows them to thrive in various environments, from the open ocean to turbid river waters. This feeding behavior also makes them an integral part of the food web, transferring energy from lower to higher trophic levels.

How are shad populations currently faring?

Shad populations have faced declines due to overfishing, habitat loss, and water pollution. Conservation efforts, such as fishing restrictions and habitat restoration, are in place to help recover these populations. According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, recent management measures have led to signs of recovery in some shad stocks, though challenges remain.

Can you eat shad, and what does it taste like?

Yes, shad can be eaten and are known for their rich, distinctive flavor, often described as a cross between herring and salmon. The flesh is tender with a high fat content, which makes it suitable for smoking and baking. However, shad are also notorious for their numerous small bones, which require careful preparation or a specialized deboning technique known as "shad boning."

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Discussion Comments

By anon1006684 — On Apr 27, 2022

the photo ,gizzard shad, is not a shad at all. please !

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