Having spent some deck time during my younger years on offshore fishing vessels, I am interested in fish.
I am particularly interested in migratory fish.
There’s something about how fish can travel from one piece of water to another, knowing the unique scent of a river or patch of open ocean by the underwater canyons or currents – how they know “home,” from an aquatic perspective. In the 1970s, I learned a bit about these watery excursions from working on a swordfish longliner.
When I moved to an upriver and very much inland part of the Bay watershed, another migratory fish captured my interest. What better way, I thought, to connect the Bay, the ocean, and the uplands than through the amazing travels and life cycle of the American shad, Alosa sapidissima, or the “most delicious” of all shad, as the name says.
So, when I learned that our photojournalist, Dave Harp, was headed to the Pamunkey Fish Hatchery to shoot a story for another Bay Journal writer, I begged to go along. The hatchery was barely an hour from the photo shoot on the Rappahannock River – and I‘d never seen a live shad up close and personal.
After a long winter and an ambiguous start to spring, American shad have started their annual run up the western rivers of the Bay, including the York River and its two main tributaries, the Mattaponi and the Pamunkey rivers. For decades, both the Virginia Indian tribes who take the names of these rivers, have been running fish hatcheries to support their own fisheries, and over the last several decades to help the species recover.
We met up with Henry Lansgton and Grover Miles at the hatchery on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation near Lanesville, Virginia. Both in their early 80s, they’ve witnessed the annual cycles of these “founding fish,” as author John McPhee called the American shad, as well as the faltering recovery efforts of the last several decades.
But their 14-foot flat-bottomed boats were filled with fishing and assorted gear, clearly ready and rigged for one person. There was no way one, let alone both, of us could go along for the ride.
So we ended up at a game department public boat landing watching them fish a stretch of the Pamunkey River about a half-mile upriver from the fish hatchery. Dave had his telephoto lens, which was good for watching, not to mention essential for the getting the shots needed for the article.
But there wasn’t much to see, except the breeze riffling the water against a background of still-brown marsh and barely flowering maples. With the sun warming my back, I watched the nets drift with the tide towards the pier. Small orange foam floats kept the gillnet erect while the body of the net – set in a U-shape open towards the Bay – hung 25 feet down towards the incoming tide that, along with the water temperature, signaled to the shad that the time was ripe for spawning.
Based on some other kind of knowing, Miles started to haul back his gear, stopping to pull glistening fish from the net and toss them into the flat bottom of the boat. He’s been fishing for 63 years, and I tried to imagine the familiarity and knowing in his body as he overhanded the monofilament net aboard.
Back at the hatchery, Grover Miles’ son, Glenn, had everything ready for the incoming fish. At the water’s edge, he helped his father load his Jon boat onto the boat trailer, and then waited as the truck and trailer dripping with Pamunkey river water come to a stop at the top of the ramp. Langston followed within minutes. Between Miles and Langston, there were several dozen fish. They sorted them into females and bucks to make sure they had enough of each – and then they got to work.
With a rubber-gloved hand, Glen grabbed one of the 18-inch females and with a smooth milking motion, pressed both thumbs along the swollen belly of the fish, working the eggs towards her vent, squeezing them out into a white plastic bucket. At the same time, he was demonstrating his technique to Jamie Atkins, who at 26 had just returned to live on the reservation, and was helping out at the hatchery for the first time this season. “I’m going to squeeze this one a little more,” he said, flinging the eggs that stuck to his gloves into the bucket, all the while stroking towards the vent of the fish.
If allowed to distribute her eggs naturally, a female shad may deposit between 30,000 to 600,000 eggs – but this one-time harvest of eggs will yield numbers closer to the lower end of the range.
American shad populations have plummeted since the 1970s when overfishing, pollution, and dams and fish blockages that prevented the fish from reaching their upstream spawning grounds cumulatively proved too much for species sustainability. Since then, restoration projects have focused on removing fish passage obstructions to increase spawning habitat and stocking the Bay’s tributary streams with fish fry – many of which have come from the Pamunkey Fish Hatchery.
According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, egg fertilization in the wild ranges from five to 35 percent but increases to as much as 95 percent with the manual assistance provided by fish hatcheries. Glen swished his hand in the bucket where eggs and sperm are mixed with some river water and being left to “harden,” the term used to describe the change in the feel of the eggs once fertilized. I wanted to stick my own hand and feel the hardening myself, but somehow it just didn’t seem right to intrude on this intimate – and sacred – process.
We went inside the hatchery to appreciate the tanks and plumbing that would be home to the fertilized eggs, most of which would hatch out as “fry” in about seven days. Glen, who is running the hatchery operations this year, showed us how he counts the eggs using a slotted wooden tool that can be used to extrapolate the number of eggs per liter – and come up with the data that are reported Virginia Marine Resources Commission at the end of the season.
The fertilized eggs are then poured into one of the clear plastic tubes attached to the larger holding tanks, both of which are circulating fresh Pamunkey River water. About seven days after the fish hatch, they will swim over the lip of the tube into the larger tank, where they are fed and protected until it’s time to release them back into the river.
We left Glen and Jamie to continue the work of making a temporary home for the shad fry. Miles and Langston had long since cleaned up their boats and headed home when we emerged from the hatchery. I thought about what Jamie had told me when I asked him why he wanted to work at the hatchery.
“It’s important, he said. “This is a beautiful place, and we have to preserve it.” The Pamunkey – along with neighboring Mattaponi – live the ethic of giving back to the natural world after harvesting what they need.
Watching this in action turned out to be just as compelling as seeing my first American shad, up close and personal.