Spring's Iconic Shad Still Struggles for a Comeback

(Maine Department Of Marine Resources)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

In a year when folks wore shorts in January and forsythia bloomed three months ahead of schedule, you would think that the region's American shad would be running early, too -- all the way to Washington restaurants and fish markets.

But no matter when the local shad find their way upstream, they will never make it to area consumers, thanks to a fishing moratorium. The shad now in stores come from southern shores instead.

Warmer temperatures are a signal to this largest member of the herring family that it's time to leave the saltwater ocean and spawn in the freshwater rivers and streams from Florida to Labrador. Fans look forward to the short spring season when they can savor this fish's incomparable moist white meat, deeply flavored dark meat and rich, nutty (some say liver-like) roe, which pairs beautifully with bacon.

"It's such a delicacy, with an earthy quality and unique taste," says Jamie Leeds, chef and owner of Hank's Oyster Bar near Dupont Circle. "And anything that's served with bacon is worth waiting for."

But since 2005, there has been a near-total moratorium on shad harvests from the coastal waters of Maryland and Virginia. (The exception: Some fishermen with permits can keep up to 10 shad per boat if those fish are netted as by-catch.) Even earlier, the states -- Maryland in 1980 and Virginia in 1993 -- had banned shad harvests from the Chesapeake Bay.

As early as the late 1800s, the stocks of what was once one of the area's most prized fish began to decline because of water pollution, the damming of tributaries and overfishing. And it stands to reason that when the roe of a species is more prized than the flesh, there will be fewer fish in the sea.

There are positive signs that restocking efforts by federal and state agencies are restoring shad populations. Sport fishermen, who can legally catch and release shad along the Potomac River, had great success last spring. But it takes generations of adult fish to create large numbers -- enough so that a downtown restaurant can honestly offer "fresh Maryland shad."

"The tunnel is still dark, and there is no indication when the moratorium will be lifted," says Rob O'Reilly, deputy chief of fisheries management for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Until it is, you can find American shad (whole fish, fillets and roe sets) from the Carolinas in many supermarkets, fish stores and restaurants.

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