Charles River restocked with American shad

Richard Conn

Up until about a century ago, the Charles River teemed with American shad, a freshwater-born fish that is the largest member of the herring family.

However, the shad population was eventually decimated due to water pollution, the construction of dams, and over-fishing.

In recent years though, conditions along the Charles have gotten better and since 2006, wildlife and conservation officials have worked to return shad to one of its native habitats.

On Friday, officials from the Department of Fish and Game, its Division of Marine Fisheries, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came to the boat dock on Woerd Avenue to restock the Charles with more than 464,000 baby shad.

The miniscule fish, which looked to be no more than a half-inch long before they were transferred from a round tank into the river through a large hose, could eventually grow to be as large as 7 or 8 pounds.

Including the batch sent into the warm waters of the Charles on Friday, more than 950,000 shad have been restocked into the river this summer. In 2006, when the program started, 1.8 million shad fry were released into the Charles.

“So it’s a big effort, but it’s showing signs of progress,” said Mary Griffin, commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game.

Of course, many of the baby shad that were sent into the river won’t survive.

The goal of the propagation effort is to eventually restore an adult population of about 30,000 to the Charles River. The hope is that shad will return to the river to spawn after spending the majority of their adult lives in the ocean.

“This is going to be permanently their home - at least for raising kids,” said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, which also helped with the restocking effort. Besides returning shad to their native habitat, one of the other goals of the restoration program is to create a sport fishery for local anglers.

“It’s a great sporting fish,” Zimmerman said.

Shad are also desirable for their roe, or fish eggs. And the species also play a crucial role in the ecosystem as a food source for other larger fish such as the striped bass and bluefish, said Joseph McKeon, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

McKeon said the shad also bring back desired nutrients to the river when they return from the sea.

All of the fish that were released Friday were marked. In the fall, shad in the river will be examined to see whether they came from the stocking program. By then, McKeon said, the shad should be about 4 inches long.

Officials hope to see adult shad return to the Charles by 2010.

Richard Conn can be contacted at 781-398-8004 or