Saving Migratory Fish in the Apalachicola River

Conservation Locking

Watch how "conservation locking" helps Alabama shad navigate the Jim Woodruff Dam.

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Conservation locking provides Alabama shad access to more than 150 miles of historic fish spawning grounds at almost no additional operation costs to the dam.


Although once abundant, Alabama shad are globally rare fish and "species of concern” that depend on both saltwater and freshwater to survive. Populations of these fish have declined due to several threats, the greatest of which are the dams that make it impossible for the fish to reach their historic spawning grounds. The Nature Conservancy and our partners have collaborated on a solution to help the Alabama shad pass upriver in the same way that barges and boats do.

Conservation Locking

The Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam is a hydroelectric dam on the Apalachicola River in Florida, which connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers in Georgia. Constructed in 1952, the dam created a migration barrier for Alabama shad and other migratory fishes, which swim upstream from the Gulf to as far north as Missouri to spawn.

In 2005, while studying the shad's migration patterns, Conservancy scientist Dr. Steven Herrington realized fish could cross the dam the same way boats do—by entering a lock at the bottom of the dam—if only they could be drawn into the locks. He began working with partners at the Jim Woodruff Dam to implement "conservation locking."

Today, the locks to the Apalachicola River—where the largest known population of Alabama shad is located—are opened at least twice each day for fish passage during the spawning season each spring, and a simple, inexpensive water pump is used to attract fish into the lock.

The system provides Alabama shad access to more than 150 miles of historic fish spawning grounds at almost no additional operation costs to the dam. Since 2012, Alabama shad populations have increased four-fold and research proves that 89 percent of these fish were spawned upstream of the Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam.

Following the Fish

After the success of the conservation locking strategy, Dr. Herrington wanted to know if the shad born upriver were able to reverse the journey and rejoin the rest of the population. So he followed the fish to Missouri to study otoliths, small bones in their inner ear that tell scientists much about the life cycle of the shad.

“Otoliths have annual growth rings, like trees, that offer clear evidence that Alabama shad are using the lock to reach historical spawning grounds in the Apalachicola River Basin,” said Dr. Herrington, now the Missouri Director of Freshwater Conservation for the Conservancy.

More Mussels and Bigger Bass

Conservation locking is working to reconnect vital habitat for the Alabama shad and is also benefiting other species that depend on this fish for survival.

For example, baby freshwater mussels must attach themselves to the gills of fishes for a period of time before detaching and settling more permanently on river bottoms. Researchers at the University of Georgia working with the Conservancy have discovered that mussels are attaching themselves to the recovering population of Alabama shad in the basin.

“Mussels need fish to complete their life cycle” said Herrington. “They also provide critical ecosystem services by removing contaminants and excessive nutrients from the water. In essence, mussels are living filters for rivers. Our findings suggest that recovering the once-numerous shad could help recover imperiled freshwater mussels in the Apalachicola and perhaps other river basins as far north as the Gasconade and Meramec rivers in Missouri.”

Alabama shad are also an important food source for sport fishes like striped bass and largemouth bass. Their recovery is expected to invigorate fishing on Lake Seminole, created by the dam, and on the Apalachicola River, where thousands of anglers provide a substantial revenue source for the region.

The success of conservation locking at the Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam prompted the Army Corps to implement identical projects at two other locks on the Alabama River, where migratory fish species were also in decline. With more than 600 dams in the United States, this low-tech, low-cost solution is an opportunity to help restore river health and biodiversity across the nation.  

Project Partners
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Geological Survey’s South Carolina Cooperative Fish Research Unit at Clemson University
  • National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
  • Georgia Department of Natural Resources
  • Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources
  • Auburn University
  • University of Florida
  • Geological Survey of Alabama
  • Apalachicola Riverkeeper



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