Spawning Sighting Shows the Strength of Partnerships

Spawning Sighting Shows the Strength of Partnerships
May 15, 2020 by: Maureen Farrington

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 Could it be?  Are Shad - the DC state fish and a sign of a healthy waterway - really spawning all the way out in the upper reaches of the Anacostia Watershed?  

On Monday, May 11, the Anacostia Watershed Society received this video in an email from Liz MacDonald, Master Watershed Steward, who was hiking along what appeared to be "Canyon Creek"  in Greenbelt when she caught this video:

Liz sent the email to us and to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (after also submitting the observation to iNaturalist). Eagerly a species identification ensued. Are they blueback herring, alewife, American shad, or hickory shad? Something else? It was hard to tell. Thanks to advice from Robert Bourbon, Fisheries Biologist with Maryland DNR, we knew what to look for and the hunt was on. He said, "River herring are smaller than American shad and venture much further up our river systems, so it's not uncommon to see them in small tributaries like this. American shad prefer to spawn in larger sections of rivers. This is still a very cool observation. Would you be able to provide a more detailed description of where you found the fish? I'm not familiar with Canyon Creek."

Goddard Branch of the Anacostia River in Greenbelt
Location of Shad Spawning sighting at the Canyon Creek/Goddard Branch in Greenbelt

Jorge Bogantes, Natural Resources Specialist here at the Anacostia Watershed Society, looped in our friends at the Metropolitan Council of Governments (another longtime partner working for a cleaner Anacostia River), and shared this great story map they put together showing Shad Migration in the watershed:

But the mystery of what species of Shad our intrepid Master Steward LIz had found was finally solved when Phong Trieu from the Council of Govenments looked over the evidence:

Great video; from the view point of a great blue heron.

It was hard to clearly see all the fish in that school in the video but the ones I saw are gizzard shad. At the 4:36 to 4:38, you can see the long flagellate fin extension on the back of the fish.

The spring 2020 anadromous fish migration seems to be late this year in both the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Normally, at this time, this run is winding down. There is still a chance that the river herring may migrate up to “Canyon Creek”/Goddard tributary.

Armed with the information that it was Goddard Creek and not Canyon, Jorge ventured to the site to see what he could find.  Upon snapping pictures and sending to the email list, we had an identification! Gizzard Shad.

Gizzard Shad, left; Fin showing its species, right.
Jorge with a Gizzard Shad at the site, left; Fin showing its species, right.

In the meantime Liz had shared the video and updates with the Greenbelt Biota Group (facebook group link), a community organization dedicated to local conservation, oberservation, and education, and had some questions, "How long should the spawning last? They should head downstream then right? There is discussion that they might be stuck upstream by low water level. " Phong responded right away:

Questions, how long should the spawning last? Mid to the end of May. Gizzard shad like warm stream temperatures mid 60’s and up to spawn. Gizzard shads are resident fish. Unlike their cousins, the river herring that return to the oceans, G. shad will only return to the Potomac river.

They should head downstream then right? Many will head downstream. Older fish can become stressed post spawn and die near the spawning areas.

There is discussion that they might be stuck upstream by low water level. Yes there is always this chance. The Potomac River floodplain trap hundreds and sometimes after big floods, thousands of gizzard shad when water recedes.

While they may not be the American Shad we've reintroduced to the Anacostia River in our Rice Rangers Program, we are excited to see that all the waterways in the Anacostia Watershed are growing healthy enough to support these little critters.  We also love that we work with so many excited citizens and experts who know how important it is to protect the tiniest of our species.

Maureen Farrington

Maureen Farrington

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