On April 27, Grade 4 students trekked down a muddy bank of the Potomac River near Old Angler’s Inn. Crouching at the water’s edge, students held cups teeming with newly hatched fish, the American Shad, ready to be released into the Potomac River. Whispering words of encouragement, students awaited the countdown to release their fish. Thus begins one of the more remarkable migrations in our area - a migration that relatively few people know about and something our Grade 4 students aim to change.
American Shad are an incredible species. Like salmon on the west coast, adult American Shad migrate from the ocean into freshwater, swimming upstream to release their eggs every spring. As the fish grow, they return to the sea, where they spend several years before returning to their natal rivers to start the cycle over again.
At one point, American Shad held a place of immense cultural and ecological significance, migrating into and spawning in virtually every river and tributary along the Atlantic coast. As the fish migrate from the ocean into bays and rivers, they pass through many ecosystems, providing food for prey species along the way. Likewise, as the fish hatch from eggs and grow in size from fry to fingerling to juveniles and make their way back to the ocean, they provide food to different prey species. This role in the ecosystem makes Shad incredibly important for the overall health of rivers and places like the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
In preparation for raising Shad in the classroom, Grade 4 students began studying environments, ecosystems, and food webs - thinking about what organisms need to survive and thrive. As we learned more about American shad, their life cycle, and their role in the ecosystem, students also discovered how humans had impacted Shad and why we work to raise them in the classroom.
Indigenous Americans and early European colonists relied heavily on Shad's massive and reliable annual spring migration. Fishing for Shad intensified as more colonists inhabited areas along east coast rivers. By 1840, fishermen were removing over 88 million pounds of Shad annually!
Unsurprisingly, Shad populations crashed. Regions all along the East Coast placed moratoriums on commercial fishing for Shad. But dam construction and water pollution served as the final straws, effectively ending the annual spring migration of Shad up and down many east coast rivers. By the mid-1970s, anglers along the Potomac could not catch a shad for ten years.
Luckily not all was lost, though, and scientists began working to restore the Potomac River shad population. Part of that work involved hatching Shad from eggs and releasing them into the river. After a few years of successfully raising and releasing Shad into the River, the population rebounded. Scientists started teaming up with teachers and environmental educators to bring eggs to classrooms for students to learn about and help raise the profile of this once-prolific species. In 2011, St. Patrick’s science teachers jumped at the opportunity to participate in the program, attending special training to learn how to set up and run a temporary fish hatchery in the classroom.
Fast forward back to April 27. Crouched at the water’s edge a few Thursdays ago, students gingerly cradled cups of water. Tiny baby American Shad wriggled in their cups, flexing their days-old muscles, about to be released into the ambling current. Students offered advice and encouragement to the newly hatched fish about to begin an epic 12,000-mile journey, hopefully to the ocean and back.
Students counted down: THREE. . .TWO. . .ONE. . .GOOD LUCK BABY SHAD!
Interested in learning more? Watch Shad Run, a fantastic short documentary on the Shad hatching program in DC schools and the history of American Shad in the Potomac.