A member of the Clupeidae fish family, Alabama shad are anadromous, meaning adults live in salt water but migrate upstream into freshwater rivers to spawn.
Designated a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in numerous Southern states, the Alabama shad once supported commerical fisheries in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana and Iowa.
They were once known to inhabit most Gulf Coast drainages from the Mississippi River to the Suwannee River in Florida and reach into freshwater systems as far inland as eastern Oklahoma, Iowa and across to West Virgina.
Today, the largest remaining population of the Alabama shad is in Florida’s Apalachicola River system below the Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam at the Georgia border (see map). Outside of Florida, spawning populations of Alabama shad are thought to persist in the following systems:
- Choctawhatchee and Conecuh rivers, Alabama
- Ouachita River, Arkansas
- Pascagoula River, Mississippi
- Missouri, Gasconade, Osage and Meramec rivers, Missouri
During the last several decades, the Alabama shad's range and population have significantly declined due in large part to the construction of dams, which block annual runs upstream to historic spawning grounds.
Other factors impacting their numbers and distribution include:
- habitat alteration,
- thermal alterations,
- poor water quality,
- dredging and
- are mostly silver in color with a back that has a greenish to purplish metallic sheen that fades shortly after death;
- are distinguished by a distinct median notch in its upper jaw;
- females reach 18 inches in length, while males reach 16.5 inches;
- are closely related to and are similar in appearance to the American shad;
- resemble the skipjack herring, which also occurs in many of the same locales;
- is the only anadromous species of the Clupeidae fish family known in Alabama;
- are a schooling species;
- adults live in salt water but migrate upstream into free-flowing rivers in late February and March to spawn;
- is believed to spawn in open, flowing water over sand bars and possibly limestone outcrops in the late afternoon or at night;
- complete most spawning activity from late March to early May;
- return to salt water in late April and May;
- juveniles enter salt water in late summer/early fall when they are about 2 to 5 inches;
- have a relatively short life span, living on average 6 years.
In spring 2009, the Conservancy worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other partners to open the lock gates at Claiborne Lock and Dam and Millers Ferry Lock and Dam on the Alabama River (map) – offering species like striped bass, mullet, paddlefish and Alabama shad access to spawning and feeding grounds that had been blocked for nearly 40 years.
“This is a welcomed effort to re-establish the great runs of fish that once swam over 350 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, through the Alabama River to the upland streams of the Cahaba,” said Paul Freeman, aquatic ecologist with the Conservancy.
The Corps has approved the continuation of the project for at least two more years at both Claiborne and Millers Ferry.
This spring the Conservancy will support researchers from Auburn University, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and other partners to determine how to attract the greatest variety and number of fish possible into these two locks.