Grover Miles and Henry Langston spent the better part of an early spring afternoon on the Pamunkey River, upstream from the fish hatchery on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation near Lanesville, VA.
Blossoming maple flowers tinged the woods pink, with a smattering of white from a shadbush here and there. The marshes hadn’t greened yet, but the female fish had started their run, ascending the tributaries with the warm water of the day, followed by the males.
The fishermen, both members of the Pamunkey tribe who have been catching shad for more than 60 years, set their mono-
filament drift nets as the tide inched toward slack, and both nets and fishermen floated with the tide and the slight April breeze.
At just the right moment, they began hauling the nets into their aluminum skiffs, pausing to grab each shad they caught. Once they’d hauled the nets, they motored downriver to the hatchery where Grover’s son, Glen Miles, helped put the boats on their trailers.
Then the Indians turned to the task: stripping the eggs from the females into a bucket, and adding the milt from the males. The eggs would be allowed to “harden” — be fertilized and go through the very first steps of becoming a juvenile shad — before being deposited in a series of tanks inside the hatchery. There, they would stay for seven days until being released as “fry” back to the river.
American shad are anadromous fish, which are born in the spring in freshwater rivers. Juveniles move downriver in the summer and then on to a life along the coast where they live four or five years before returning to spawn in their natal rivers. American Indians — and later colonial settlers — relied on spring spawning runs of Alosa sapidissima, the “most palatable” of the herring, for sustenance after long winters.
By the 18th century, shad and herring had become one of the most profitable colonial commodities. But overfishing, coupled with widespread dam construction across spawning rivers, resulted in sharp population declines. Fish hatchery operations began in 1875 along the East Coast, but harvests continued to decline through the 20th century.
While efforts to restore the fishery started in earnest in the 1980s, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi had been running fish hatcheries adjacent to their reservations since the early 1900s.
Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown said, “We did it on our own. We saw that the predators were eating the small fish, and we had to do something. When we first started to do this, we’d just mix the eggs and sperm in the bottom of the boat, then we used floating boxes.
“Our tradition teaches us, that what we take from the river we must put back,” he said.
While the tribes have primarily stocked their namesake rivers, they have also stocked American shad in other rivers, including the James, Potomac and Susquehanna.
“In 1992, the focus was on the James,” said Tom Gunter, a retired Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist, adding that Bonnie Brown from Virginia Commonwealth University advised looking to the adjacent river system to find stock to put in the James. “The next river over was the Pamunkey. The tribal government had been running that hatchery for decades, “ Gunter said. “It just made sense to use eggs from the Pamunkey River.”
Over the next decade, there was a free flow of hatchery eggs, money, and know-how. Gunter said that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grants were used to modernize both the Indian hatcheries. “Back then, everyone cooperated,” Gunter said.
Mike Odom, now manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Harrison Lake Fish Hatchery in Charles City, said, “We invited the Indians, and both tribes participated.” The agencies provided funds and hatchery operations support — and the Indians provided manpower to fish for gravid females and spawning males and to run the hatcheries.
In recent years, the state budget included money for each tribe to help with hatchery operations, but funding was dropped during austere years of the McDonnell administration. As a stopgap measure, $15,000 was allocated through the DGIF budget for 2013 and 2014. There are no plans to support the Indian hatcheries in upcoming years.
Costs to run the hatchery include electricity, maintenance on the plumbing and tanks, filters and other supplies. The manpower — fishing and running the hatchery — is donated.
Glenn Miles, who is in his second year of running the Pamunkey hatchery, makes up a part of the labor. Miles has his own construction company. During the spawning season he has to juggle his business and the hatchery operations. It’s a challenge, because the fish only spawn when they’re ready. “Sometimes I just have to leave a job in the middle so that I can come down and be ready when the fishermen come in.”
Because of uncertainty in funding next year, the tribe has stretched the $15,000 in state funding so there would be some left for next year’s operations.
“We give more bang for the buck than any other hatchery in the country,” Brown said. “We started the hatcheries on our own, and we’ll keep running them. We don’t just fish for ourselves. We’re fishing for everyone.”