A great and ancient wildlife migration is occurring in our midst. The spring spawning run of American shad (Alosa sapidissima) in the Delaware River is a timeless ritual, and a natural wonder to behold.
- A great and ancient wildlife migration is occurring in our midst. The spring spawning run of American shad (Alosa sapidissima) in the Delaware River is a timeless ritual, and a natural wonder to behold.
In the continuation of an event that has taken place on the Delaware River for perhaps the past 10,000 years, determined fish that have travelled over 12,000-miles at sea, including forays to the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy, are now nearing their goal.
Working their way up the 330-mile long main stem of the Delaware River, they’ve come home to spawn in their natal waters, in what will be the final journey for some.
These fish are key components of an age-old cycle of biomass interchange between the river and the ocean.
They are central to transporting nutrients and energy incorporated into their biomass between these two realms, completing an ecological link that is beneficial to both systems.
In the free-flowing Delaware, such cycles that have occurred for thousands of years are still relatively intact, contributing to ecological integrity that is exceptional among the large river systems of the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S.Historically, the Delaware had the largest annual commercial shad harvest of any river on the Atlantic Coast, and several times that of any other river.
In the late 1890s, American shad harvest estimates on the Delaware ranged up to 19 million pounds, or approximately five to six million fish. Those harvested fish were only a fraction of the total run.
As the last major river on the Atlantic Coast undammed the entire length of its main stem, today’s Delaware River American shad runs remain strong compared with other Atlantic Coast rivers, but nearly an order of magnitude less than what they used to be here.
Still, this spectacle is worth witnessing and admiring, as an enduring rite of spring and a pulse of life that ascends the river and energizes the system, providing abundant food for a range of wildlife after a cold and spare winter.
So whether you’re fishing for American shad, or observing them on a float trip or from a bridge deck, take a moment to marvel at this phenomenon and these intrepid travelers, and welcome them back home to the Delaware after their 12,000-mile journey.
For an opportunity to catch a glimpse of this migration, some good Delaware River viewing locations to observe shad from include the pedestrian walkways on the Matamoras/Port Jervis, NY (Route 6/209) Bridge, the Damascus/Cochecton, NY (Rte 371/114) Bridge, or the Callicoon Bridge.
Look for fish about 20 inches long, and gray in color against the darker riverbed background, moving upstream.