MICHELE S. BYERS / NJ CONSERVATION FOUNDATION – The last time the fish known as American shad was seen in the Millstone River, James Polk was president and the Civil War had yet to be fought.
Until now. With the removal of an old, obsolete dam in Manville, Somerset County, American shad are successfully spawning in the lower section of the Millstone, a Raritan River tributary.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection just announced that juvenile shad were found in the Millstone River about 4.5 miles upstream of where the Weston Mill Dam was removed in the summer of 2017. It was the first shad sighting in this river since 1845!
“This is great news and a wonderful environmental success story,” said Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe. “These juvenile shad were found in the first unimpeded migratory season after removal of the Weston Mill Dam, indicating this species has an inherent tendency to recolonize once obstacles are removed from its migratory path.”
“Removal of the Weston Mill Dam represents an important step in the restoration of the Millstone River and the larger Raritan River Basin,” said Jim Waltman, Executive Director of The Watershed Institute, which advocated for the removal of the Weston Mill Dam. “We are proud to be working in partnership with federal and state conservation agencies to restore migratory fish, improve water quality, and remove a dangerous obstacle to recreational use of the Millstone River.”
American shad (Alosa sapidissima) are the largest member of the herring family and are “anadromous,” meaning they spend most of their lives in saltwater but return to freshwater rivers each spring to spawn.
Author John McPhee called shad “The Founding Fish” in his 2002 book of the same name. Shad played an enormous role in American history and economics.
Legend has it that during the Revolutionary War, an early spring shad run up the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania helped feed George Washington’s starving troops after their bitter winter at Valley Forge. Decades later, Confederate General George Pickett may have lost a Civil War battle because he left the front lines to attend a shad picnic. The fish’s Latin species name “sapidissima” means most savory or delicious.
American shad are found up and down the east coast of North America, from Newfoundland to Florida. But they declined severely during the Industrial Revolution, when rivers were dammed for electric power and lakes. These dams stopped shad and other migratory fish from reaching their spawning habitats.
During the last decade, dam removal has become a new call to action. Besides preventing fish migrations, dams also harm water quality in rivers by blocking water flow, trapping sediment, and changing habitat.
In the Musconetcong River, a Delaware River tributary that flows through Warren and Hunterdon counties, several dams have been removed to open up a 6.5-mile section of river. In 2017, the Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service confirmed the return of shad to the Musconetcong after an absence of more than a century.
Dams were also removed on the Raritan River. The Calco Dam removal in Bridgewater helped facilitate the migration of shad to the Millstone River. Two other dams farther upstream on the Raritan, the Nevius Street and Robert Street dams, have also been removed.
In Warren County, the enormous Columbia Lake dam on the Paulinskill River is in the process of being removed, which will open up over 10 miles of free flowing river into the Delaware. The dam removal is part of a larger initiative led by The Nature Conservancy to improve stream habitat throughout the Paulinskill watershed.
Additional dam removals on the Millstone, Raritan, Musconetcong and Paulinskill rivers are planned.
In addition to the Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, organizations working to remove dams include The Watershed Institute, The Nature Conservancy, Musconetcong Watershed Association, American Rivers, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Horizon Foundation, Conservation Resources Inc., and the Raritan River Fish Passage Initiative.
For more information on American shad in New Jersey, go to www.state.nj.us/drbc/edweb/american-shad.html . To learn more about dam removals, visit the Watershed Institute website at https://thewatershed.org/dams/.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the NJ Conservation Foundation.