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What is the Shad Festival?

Britt Archer
Britt Archer

The Shad Festival is held each spring in Lambertville, New Jersey, to celebrate the return of the shad, a fish in the herring family, to the Delaware River. For many years, the Delaware River was so polluted that the number of shad that came to spawn each spring had dwindled to an alarmingly low number. Like a canary in a coalmine that signals an unhealthy environment, the lack of sufficient numbers of shad sent a warning to environmentalists, who rallied for a cleanup of the waterway. The Shad Festival was first held in 1981 to mark the ecological milestone, and now thousands of tourists, shoppers and environmentalists attend the two-day event.

The Delaware River forms a partial border between the states of New York and Pennsylvania, and the entire border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The Delaware River has, over the years, been subject to much pollution and several oil spills. These factors led to a reduction of the shad population in the 1970s.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Shad are primarily saltwater fish, but they swim up freshwater rivers to spawn in the springtime. Unlike trout, which have a very similar reproduction ritual, many shad survive to swim back to sea. Various types of shad are found in all areas of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as several seas across the world. The shad use the deep waters of the Delaware River as a spawning ground, but the river had become so polluted that the population of the shad in the Delaware River was almost completely diminished until environmental reforms were enacted.

In 1981, the city of Lambertville had fallen on tough economic times. The city had noticed that the pollution of the local Delaware River had improved, and the 30-inch (76.2 cm) toothless fish had begun to swim upriver to spawn again. Local officials decided to organize a festival to celebrate the return of this bony fish, and a tourism boom ensued, leading ultimately to economic recovery of the town. The shad festival, which has been held annually ever since, has consisted of all the amenities of most small town festivals, such as food and booths for the sale of items, but it also contains an educational component focused on ecology.

The Shad Festival is usually held when the shad begin to spawn. As they travel up the river, there are shad-hauling demonstrations, called seining, which catch the fish in nets in a method used by the Lenni Lenape Indians, the original inhabitants of the area during colonial times. In addition to seining demonstrations and shad cooking demonstrations, the Shad Festival also offers a variety of vendors, music, art shows and more, including a poster auction to benefit a scholarship program for local high school seniors. Food abounds, but the main attraction is the shad. Ultimately, the Shad Festival is a celebration of both the return of this unique fish and the return of tourism and economy to the riverside town.

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