When a video surfaced earlier this month of fish spawning in a small tributary of the Anacostia River, the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) was understandably excited. The group launched an investigation of sorts to find out whether the spawning fish were shad– Washington, D.C.’s state fish– an unusual sight in the upper reaches of the Anacostia watershed.
The video from Master Watershed Steward Liz MacDonald captures the cluster of relatively large fish in a small creek she found while out hiking. “These fish are gettin’ frisky,” she narrates in the video posted on YouTube.
Unsure what kind of fish she was seeing, MacDonald shared the video with AWS (who, in turn, shared it with the Metropolitan Council of Governments), the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Greenbelt Biota Group, a local conservation-dedicated organization.
DNR biologists initially guessed the fish were river herring, since they usually travel further up into small tributaries than shad do. But more information was needed. Ultimately, Phong Trieu of the Council of Governments identified the fish as gizzard shad.
Trieu notes, “At the 4:36 to 4:38 [mark], you can see the long flagellate fin extension on the back of the fish.” Watch below to see for yourself:
Trieu also helped pinpoint the location of the spawning site as Goddard Creek. AWS Natural Resources Specialist Jorge Bogantes went out to see if he could find the fish. He did, and his photos allowed them to be positively identified as gizzard shad.
So what were these shad doing in the creek? Trieu sheds some light: “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.”
Trieu observes that the spring anadromous fish migration seems to be late in 2020 in both the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers; normally the run would have already been winding down when MacDonald shot her video on May 11.
AWS had hoped the fish spotted in Goddard Creek would turn out to be American shad, the species the group has worked to reintroduce on the Anacostia.
But as AWS marketing manager Maureen Farrington writes in the original blog post detailing this discovery:
“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.”
-Meg Walburn Viviano