Researchers at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries have been involved in a two-year study to determine the status and distribution of one of Arkansas’ most elusive native fish species – the Alabama shad.

A marine (saltwater) fish native to the Gulf of Mexico, the species migrates into freshwater rivers along the U.S. southern coast for spawning in the spring, according to a news release.

“Despite being considered a native fish species, the Alabama shad is very rare in Arkansas,” Michael Eggleton, Ph.D., professor of aquaculture and fisheries for UAPB, said.

“Last spring, we engaged in the most intensive sampling for it ever and got exactly one. The lone Alabama shad specimen was collected in the Ouachita River main-stem about 2.6 miles downstream of the mouth of the Caddo River,” he said.

Eggleton said the species’ historical spawning range included the Mississippi River basin eastward to the Suwannee River in Florida, with spawning occurring as far inland as Oklahoma (in the Arkansas River), Iowa (in the upper Mississippi River) and West Virginia (in the Ohio and Kanawha rivers). Since 1879, there have only been 29 accounts of the species ever being collected in Arkansas.

Historically, of the specimens found, most have been juveniles collected by seining during summer months. Recent reports of Alabama shad in Arkansas have mostly come from collections concentrated in the Ouachita River, and its largest tributary, the lower Little Missouri River.

There are no known reports of Alabama shad being collected in the Arkansas reach of the Mississippi River or anywhere in the Arkansas River basin in more than a century.

Eggleton said some scientific literature classifies the species as “much reduced” or “vulnerable to extinction,” whereas the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission lists the species as “critically imperiled” in Arkansas. Declines in abundance have been attributed largely to the widespread construction of navigational lock-and-dam systems in many inland river systems.

“Although dams and other obstructions do tend to congregate spawning adults, it is generally believed that these structures have negatively impacted populations through time,” he said. “In fact, lock-and-dam construction has probably completely eliminated Alabama shad in some river systems.”

In 2018, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) funded a two-year UAPB study to update the status and distribution of Alabama shad in Arkansas waters. The project aims to provide a foundation for future studies while helping generate basic information critical to the conservation of this species.

In 2019, sampling efforts were complicated by heavy rainfall and flooding. All sampling took place between April and August and was limited to the Ouachita River Basin. Sampling planned for the Arkansas River was cancelled due to the historic flooding that occurred.

“Hydrologic extremes in the Ouachita River basin between April and May 2019 made river access challenging and fish sampling difficult and inefficient, and in the Arkansas River, unsafe for small work boats,” Eggleton said. “Despite these circumstances, we were able to conduct boat electrofishing sampling around the periods of high water, though conditions never seemed to be optimal.”

In total, UAPB researchers spent over 18 hours conducting electrofishing samples during 2019 in the Ouachita River at locations ranging from Rockport downstream to Moro Bay. The single specimen found was a male fish that was 210 millimeters long and weighed 280 grams.

“The catch was considered to be isolated and not linked to any particular environmental factor,” Eggleton said. “In other words, this lone specimen appeared to have been collected in a habitat where conditions were comparable to areas we had been sampling elsewhere in the basin. Although many other Alabama shad were surely present, numbers migrating as far inland as Arkansas were probably not high.”

Apart from the lonesome Alabama shad, 49 other fish species were collected or observed during the sampling sessions. Only one other species – the alligator gar – was also considered uncommon or rare for the basin.

“AGFC biologists were excited to hear that an alligator gar was found considerably far upstream in the Ouachita River,” Eggleton said.

The fish was downstream of Camden in an area called Spoon Bend, where none had been observed in quite some time. The specimen was also smaller (about 4 feet long), meaning it came from a recent spawning and was, therefore, not a relict specimen (an old one left over from an earlier time that is not reproducing).

“During 2020, coronavirus guidelines issued by the state and federal governments and multiple university directives temporarily restricted work on this project,” Eggleton said. “We are hopeful to resume work in the coming weeks and continue through the summer.”

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— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor at the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.