Will there be a happy ending for this shad tale?
Only time will tell if we can reverse the effects of overfishing, dams
The behavior of European settlers toward the Chesapeake's marvelous natural resource of migratory fishes is a sad tale; a shabby tale. I call it a shad tale.
We don't know how many millennia shad, alewives and herring made their spring migrations up the Bay's rivers, but such an abundant food source had probably been harvested by native Americans for at least a couple of thousand years. These mobile fish populations were almost certainly caught and eaten before these indigenous peoples adopted "farming" practices on the land about A.D. 900-1000.
Archeological sites around the basin reveal "sinker stones" that were likely used to weight the bottom of nets crafted from plant fibers plaited into cord. Many Bay rivers, far up on Piedmont terrain-above the flat coastal plain where tidal influence is felt from the sea-still have ancient Indian "weirs" of hand-carried stone. These barriers extended like wings toward either bank in a V-shape pointing upstream and directed migrating fish toward a center opening conveniently covered with a collecting basket of open weave.
Virginia's colonists, located on the broad expanses of the Bay's lower tributaries, focused first on sturgeon, which were much bigger targets than shad and herrings. John Smith reported there were "more sturgeon than could be eaten by dogg or man" but they would be very welcome one subsequent cold winter of the Colony's "starving time." Native Americans taught the colonists how their weirs were built, of close-driven stakes in tidal waters, but the early "Adventurers" were indifferent fellows and lost most of the nets brought for them through decay from storing them improperly and wet.
Native Americans "broyled" fish, either on a framework of sticks or "hurdle," or impaled on a stake adjacent to the fire, in a manner somewhat anticipating the more modern Virginia tradition of splitting open a shad and "planking" it vertically on a board it to cook in the radiant heat of an open fire.
Shad and herring originally migrated with incredible abundance to the farthest reaches of the basin. In the 18th century, a grateful William Cooper recorded the arrival of great schools of anadromous fish in Lake Otsego, literally the wellspring of Chesapeake Bay in what's now New York state, an event that saved his fledgling community of Cooperstown from starvation. Rockfish Gap in the Virginia Mountains near Charlottesville and Tom Jefferson's Monticello speaks for itself.
Abundance itself was no guarantee against mankind's greed. Even in 1678, the records of Middlesex court noted that overfishing had caused "the Great hurte and Grievance of most of the Inhabitants of this Country." But, by-and-large, the great annual flow of fish far up in the basin continued.
Greg Garman at Virginia Commonwealth University suggests that this tremendous flow of nitrogen and organic carbon into the headwaters may have been a significant part of the ecological energy budget in clear, hill-streams surrounded by old growth forest, recycling so efficiently that it was stingy with nutrients. The abundant sperm and eggs broadcast into the waters, the fertilized eggs and juveniles eaten by resident fish and the dying of some seven out of 10 exhausted spawners must have represented thousands of tons basinwide.
Major planters along all of the Bay's rivers-like the Lees of Virginia-eagerly harvested this resource as well, both for profit and to feed their "people." George Washington leased sites on his Potomac riverfront properties for experienced men to harvest, and his writings record specifications for the purchase of seine nets in England and Colonial, (and later, U.S.) exports of barrels of pickled and salted herrings. John Mercer in1797 "contrived to land 20,000 (herrings) a day. Capper, Power and Shivers, in their book, "Chesapeake Waters," quote Maryland Journalist Anne Royall saying that seines for herring and shad: "from 108 to 200 fathoms in length [were] spread across the [Susquehanna] river by boats."
A cold sea and warm land makes for sea breezes to provide wind power for mills. The Chesapeake region, in summer, combines a warm Bay and warm rivers and makes breezes too unreliable for turning windmills. Freedom of access for many tributaries to the Bay's major rivers was therefore quickly blocked by colonists eager to dam the streams for water power.
Fishermen quickly came into conflict with mill owners and court legislative actions are recorded in 1748, 1759, 1760, and 1761. In 1760, fishpots were proposed in the construction of which, openings of prescribed width between the laths would allow the young fish to escape. By 1769, mill owners or others seeking to block streams were ordered to make openings in them for the passage of fish. Capper and co-authors, in "Chesapeake Waters," claim (with good basis) that another whole book could be written simply on the tensions between mill owners and those who fished these migratory fish stocks.
I once enjoyed an evening meal in a Pennsylvania restaurant where the copings around the dining booths were lined with old books. Purely by chance, one I pulled to scan while awaiting my meal was a turn of the (20th) century report of the Pennsylvania Fisheries Commission. In this issue a study, even then some years old, was cited where interviewers had gone out to talk with the oldest fishermen then living, some of whom had fished the Susquehanna and its tributaries in the 1700s.They discussed the prices for shad in fat years and lean and memorable nights when more than a thousand were taken.
Elsewhere in the same volume was the litany of stream blockages that brought all this anadromous fishery to an end. One dam collapsed in the early years of this century and the fishery was for a few years restored. A "slope" or passage ramp for fish to swim up was at one point tried with some success. All of the Susquehanna fishery ended-as it did in many rivers-with the erection of big dams for water supply and power generation. On the Susquehanna, this process occurred in 1928, when the Conowingo Dam was completed during a time when the less-articulate environmental objections of fishermen were not a significant consideration.
The harvest pressure was substantial, and landings, such as American shad, increased through the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, eventually exceeding 17 million pounds one year. The fishery could not be sustained at that level, with its spawning base under attack, and with few reverses, the decline continued until fishing was halted within the Bay by Maryland in 1980 and Virginia in 1994. Shad returning to spawn can still be caught legally by an "intercept fishery" where ships haul their nets off the Atlantic Coast and sell their catches and the female's rich, ripening eggs-the famous "shad roe."
Basinwide, the number of stream blockages escalated, eventually reaching about 2,400, though the counting and establishment of accurate locations is still in progress. It is surprising that the effect of these structures onupstream migrating fishes was so long ignored, especially as it was so early recognized.
Those who fished the Bay's rivers knew very well what was happening, but by-and-large continued their harvesting efforts undiminished. Somewhere around 1905, no one's exactly sure what year, the Pamunkey Indians, who have fished for thousands of years the Virginia River bearing their ancestral name, had the wisdom to seek assistance and start a fish hatchery. They have continued this practice in the intervening years as part of an attempt to sustain the American shad stock in their river. Over the years, thousands of mature shad have returned, been caught and eaten as a result of Pamunkey husbandry.
Today, selected returning adult fish are caught with the help of the Pamunkeys each spring. Their eggs and sperm are extracted and the resulting young are stocked into other Chesapeake rivers. The states similarly have shad-rearing and stocking programs that aim to right past wrongs.
Also in the present, Bay Program partners are sewing together efforts to open many hundreds, and eventually more than a thousand miles of streams, making them again accessible to spawning shad and herring populations.
It is much more expensive today to remove blockages than (in hindsight) it would have been to plan, and limit them more sensibly. Even though shad populations are recovering toward our interim targets for the Upper Chesapeake, we have a long way to go to even approximate what was there for our wise use at the beginning of it all.
Dr. Kent Mountford is a senior scientist with the EPA Chesapeake Bay program in Annapolis.
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