If things were this bad in the late 1770s, George Washington's starving Continental Army might never have made it out of Valley Forge.
The shad, according to one account, came charging up the Schuylkill River to spawn, and ran headlong into soldiers who leapt into the water, herded them into nets and wolfed them down.
Now the shad are depleted to the point of collapse. The population is so low that the federal Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council last week imposed the first-ever cap on the domestic commercial catch of shad and river herring -- which Mr. Washington's army also ate during the war against the British.
The move is the latest action by a fishery-management group to try to shore up species that have been nearly exhausted by overfishing and poor water quality. The harvest of menhaden, considered the most important fish in the sea because it provides food for many animals and helps filter pollution, was recently cut by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission because of its low stocks.
On shad and herring, the federal council took action after the commission "evaluated the health of these fish in rivers and oceans, ... and both species were determined to be at near historic low levels," said Kate Taylor, senior fishery management planning coordinator for the commission.
Most states along the Atlantic Coast already enforce moratoriums for shad and herring fishing in their waters, which extend three miles offshore. But beyond that, in federal waters, a fleet of trawlers fishing for mackerel hauls in more than 900 metric tons of shad and herring per year as bycatch. The fleet, under the new guidelines imposed by the federal council, will be limited to 236 metric tons of bycatch.
The cap, which goes into effect next year, is "a really important first," said Joseph Gordon, manager of U.S. oceans in the northeast for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Rather than closing off parts of the ocean to fishing, the federal council gave the industry discretion to figure out how to avoid picking up shad and herring. That's important to an industry that wants to preserve its mackerel catch, worth $3 million annually overseas.
Independent observers already are stationed on the mackerel trawlers -- most of which are based in Massachusetts but fish as far south as North Carolina -- to monitor the shad and herring catch for the federal government. To beef up enforcement, dockside observers will also weigh bycatch when the boats arrive in port.
The disappearance of shad could also be due to the huge dams blocking their spawning migration in rivers such as the Susquehanna.
Shad, which start life in fresh water and swim the ocean for years before returning to their birthplace to spawn, are often pushed off course by the powerful water flows from dams, or sliced by the structures' turbines. And they can be disoriented by elevators designed to help them over the dams by funneling them through gates and lifting them in buckets over walls.
The Susquehanna alone has four hydroelectric dams -- three allow only small percentages of the shad to pass.