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Shad: America's Founding Fish
Alosa sapidissima




American shad (Alosa sapidissima) is the largest member of the herring family of anadromous fish that return to their natal river to spawn. Its historical range along the East Coast of the United States is from Maine to Florida. American shad spend most of their life at sea along the Atlantic coast and enter freshwater as adults in the spring to spawn. Most young emigrate from their natal rivers during their first year of life. American shad stocks are river-specific; that is, each major tributary along the Atlantic coast appears to have a discrete spawning stock. They return three or four years later. Although shad stocks are being depleted and this resource depletion has led to the demise of some shad festivals, some communities still celebrate their return.


The Fishtown Shad Fest (est. 2009) and was inspired by the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia due to its strong historical and cultural heritage ties to shad. During the Colonial Period, the Schuylkill River was considered the richest shad fishing ground in the Philadelphia region, but the construction of dams without migratory fishways at the towns of Shawmont and Reading in 1818 and the Fairmont Dam in 1820 in Philadelphia, completely blocked upstream movement of migratory fishes (Perillo & Butler, 2009). During the American Revolution, the spring shad run saved George Washington’s troops camped along the Schuylkill River “when a pole could not be thrust into the river without a striking fish (Wildes, 1938).” After the damning of the Schuylkill, the Fishtown neighborhood on the Delaware River became home to the Philadelphia’s shad fisheries and fishing families. Shad fishing on the Delaware reached its peak in the late nineteenth-century, a time when Fishtown families controlled 30 fisheries along a 100-mile stretch of the Delaware. However, the shad fishery collapsed in the late 1800s from overfishing, pollution and environmental degradation (Remer, 2002) and does not appear to be recovering to acceptable levels (American Shad Amendment, 2010). The festival is hosted by the Friends of Penn Treaty Park, the historic site on the Delaware River where William Penn signed a peace treaty with the Delaware (Lenni Lenape) Indians in 1683, and is organized by New Kensington Community Development Commission and the Fishtown Area Business Association (FABA) (see Appendix A).

The Lambertville Shad Fest (est. 1981) takes place in downtown Lambertville, which is located on the Delaware River about 80 miles north of Philadelphia, and is sponsored by the Lambertville Area Chamber of Commerce. While returning shad numbers in the Delaware River are too low to allow extensive commercial fishing along most of its course, one lone fishery at Lewis Island at Lambertville has a shad fishing license. Lambertville’s longtime connection with shad was immortalized in The Founding Fish by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee (McPhee, 2003). McPhee presented the natural history of shad, the importance of the American shad fishery to such seminal American figures as George Washington and Henry David Thoreau and his own fascination with the species and shad fishing at Lambertville. The moniker “founding fish” refers to the fact that shad played its part in the founding of America.

The Riverkeeper Shad Festival (1990-2011) was organized by Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization with the mission to “protect the environmental, recreational and commercial integrity of the Hudson River and its tributaries, and safeguard the drinking water of nine million New York City residents (Riverkeeper, 2012).” It started off as a backyard barbeque held at the home of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an advocate of protecting the environmental and cultural status of the Hudson Valley and environs, but as it grew in size, it was eventually moved to Boscobel House and Gardens overlooking the Hudson at Garrison, New York. Through 2011, Kennedy hosted the festival and gave out community service awards in relation to preserving the Hudson Valley and River. As of 2012, the Riverkeeper Shad Festival has been replaced with a new event entitled Riverkeeper Sweep, a day of service to help clean up the Hudson.