The scientific name of the American shad, Alosa sapidissima, provides a hint as to why it is many people's favorite fish, and why the season when they swim upriver to their breeding grounds is so eagerly awaited. The name means "most delicious herring."
From mid-March to early June in our state, shad return from the ocean, where they have spent several years becoming mature adults, to spawn in fresh water. They may be found in the Thames and the Housatonic, among other places, and they are most abundant in the Connecticut River — the only place in the state where they may be fished.
Many shops and restaurants in the state now feature shad, but their value goes beyond good eating. They are an important part of the ecosystem.
As usual in nature, the fates of many species are interconnected. Hawks and eagles, who prey on shad, benefit with an increase in numbers. Several freshwater and saltwater fish eat adult shad, their roe and newborns.
Experts say 2013 looks like a good year for shad. In the fish ladder at the Holyoke, Mass., dam, where they are counted, some 250,000 swam by in 2011 and about 500,000 in 2012; this year, state environmental officials are expecting perhaps 750,000.
There are several theories about what caused both the decline and the rebound. Improvements in river pollution control and adjustments to dams doubtless helped the numbers. Other factors, such as conditions in the Atlantic and water levels in state rivers, may have played a part.
It's also important to practice conservation and management of shad in the oceans, where they spend most of their lives. Many are killed by fishermen trawling for other species such as mackerel — a consequence called bycatch.
The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which has oversight over federally managed ocean waters from New York to North Carolina, plans to institute a catch limit for shad. The New England Fishery Management Council is hoping to do something similar, and it should. Shad are too important — and tasty — to be overfished.