New York wants shad, the “poor man’s salmon”, to return to the Hudson

HUDSON – Leo Bower remembers when the Hudson River was full of shad.

In the 1970s, Bower and his father kept a fishing shack in Shantytown, a collection of shacks assembled from scrap metal and disused beams that had illegally squatted on town land by the Hudson River since at least the late 1970s. 1800s.

The duo would pack their nets and drive a 16ft skiff across the river to avoid the shipping channel – where barge engines could cut a net to shreds – then Bower would walk to one end of the 60ft net along the shore while his father spent the other end in the water.

After about 20 minutes, when the plugs floating at the top end of the net sank, it was time to haul in the catch.

“There would be hundreds of shad in there. Hundreds,” Bower said.

New York closed the Hudson River to recreational and commercial shad fishing in 2010, but the end was a long time coming. Human activity has caused the shad fishery to decline rapidly on several occasions since at least the mid-1800s. Each time they have recovered, but each recovery has been smaller than the last.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation released the beginnings of a plan earlier this month to return shad populations in the Hudson to levels seen in the 1940s, when the commercial and recreational fishing for fish would resume. The plan is ambitious and would take many years to complete, but one day in the future the river might once again be full of fish.

“Poor man’s salmon”

Bower and his father would send back most of the fish they netd, but the rest would be prepared in a legendary Hudson Valley snack. They scaled and filleted the 24-inch silverfish, then soaked them in clay pots with molasses, sugar and salt. The next day, they cooked the flavored flesh in an old metal Coca-Cola machine that Bower’s father had converted into a smokehouse.

Bower’s father sold the fillets from his slum for a dollar a pop, the sweet smell of the delicacy wafting through the slum and the city.

Called “the poor man’s salmon”, shad were eaten in part because the species is anadromous – they are born in fresh water, migrate to live in the oceans, then return to rivers to spawn. The Hudson was heavily polluted for most of the Industrial Age, and Bower said anglers avoided eating anything that actually lived in the river, instead catching species that lived most of their lives in the wild. Wed.

The DEC recovery plan for American shad in the Hudson River provides a history of shad during the Anthropocene, when human activity began to dramatically alter the population.

Intense commercial fishing on the Hudson had already caused the shad stock to collapse in the second half of the 19th century, prompting the state legislature to take action in 1861, implementing restrictions on fishing nets. fishing and fishing seasons, but overfishing has generally continued “unabated,” according to the DEC.

Since then, the Hudsonian shad population has declined steeply three more times. In the years leading up to World War II, fishing regulations were “significantly relaxed, if not completely abolished”, according to the DEC, and after ten years of catches at near-record levels, the stock collapsed. in the early 1950s.

George Jackman, aquatic ecologist and senior habitat restoration manager for the environmental group Riverkeeper, said overfishing during this period was a direct result of the war.

During both World Wars, German submarines terrorized the Atlantic, sinking military and merchant ships. Commercial fishing boats couldn’t risk trawling slowly on the high seas, so they operated in American rivers, Jackman said, leading to the collapse of the shad population after World War II.

Overfishing was not the only reason for the decline of shad. The DEC cites invasive species, habitat destruction, and shad spawning routes blocked by dams as reasons for their rarity. Large numbers of fish were also sucked into power plant cooling water intakes.

A throwback to 1980

The DEC plan has two goals: the intermediate goal of returning shad populations to their levels in the 1980s and the long-term goal of returning them to levels seen in the 1940s.

Although the shad was far from its population peak in the 1940s, the DEC uses this period as a target because going back to an earlier time would be nearly impossible. The river has changed too much since then.

Prior to modern times, the Hudson River above the town of Hudson was a winding, winding series of braided side channels and intertidal wetlands. Beginning in the mid-1800s, the river was carefully dredged to maintain a federal navigation channel, with the river bottom dumped into wetlands and side channels to fill them. The DEC cites a study in its plan indicating that 57% of this habitat was destroyed during the 20th century.

The modern era has also brought dams, which can prevent anadromous fish such as shad from reaching their spawning grounds. Many of these dams were built on tributaries of the Hudson, but the Federal Trojan Dam blocks the flow of the river itself.

The DEC states in its plan that the removal of several dams, including the Federal Dam and the Eddyville Dam on Roundout Creek in Ulster County, “would undoubtedly benefit shad in the Hudson River”, but adds that the fisheries did not collapse when they were built and estimates that only 9% of their habitat was lost due to the dams.

The return of the shad?

The DEC plan calls for habitat restoration, industrial regulation and monitoring of shad populations to achieve their goal.

Much of the habitat restoration involves establishing and encouraging the growth of submerged aquatic vegetation and the re-establishment of braided lateral channels, an effort that has already begun, but which the DEC says will only have minimal impact on shad populations.

DEC wants to limit the number of shad killed in water intake systems on the Hudson, which are licensed to inhale 5 billion gallons of river water a day and include a waste treatment plant and five power plants electric, according to the DEC.

These systems have seen major improvements in recent years, with the majority now including methods to reduce fish kills, and the systems themselves using less water than they did in their peak, according to the DEC. The closure of the Indian Point Nuclear Generating Station in 2021 eliminated a major water intake system.

The DEC wants all future water intake systems on the river to include shad mitigation methods.

Although the dams cause minimal disturbance to shad spawn, according to the DEC, the agency wants to further investigate these effects and install fish passage structures on any dams that impede the fish.

The main impact on shad, however, remains commercial fishing. Although it has been illegal to catch shad in the Hudson River since 2010, shad are still harvested in the Atlantic Ocean, both as a primary target and as incidental “bycatch” while boats are trawling. other species.

The DEC wants to identify exactly where Hudson River shad are caught on the high seas to distinguish them from shad that spawn in other rivers, and then engage with federal and interstate fisheries councils to reduce those catches. Although regulations were put in place in 2014 to limit shad bycatch in mackerel and herring harvests, the DEC wants to further investigate and possibly further limit this bycatch with the help of harvesting councils.

But, will it work?

Riverkeeper’s George Jackman said the DEC had done an “incredible job” of detailing the reasons for the shad decline in their plan, which he supports, but thinks the plan is hugely ambitious given the number of surviving fish .

“There used to be an almost infinite number of fish in the Hudson River…what we have today are just shadows,” he said.

One of the problems, according to Jackman, is that when a species reaches low numbers, it has a limited number of potential mates. This leads to inbreeding, which causes genetic mutations that can kill the animal before it reaches breeding age, further limiting the population’s ability to grow.

Jackman opposes the DEC allowing catch-and-release fishing for shad, which the agency wants to allow when shad populations reach certain thresholds that the agency says will guarantee the growth of shad. population.

The DEC says the mortality rate of caught and released shad “is low, possibly as low as 1.65%,” but Jackman disagrees, saying it’s hard to estimate how many these shads eventually die. Additionally, the egg-bearing shad that are captured are under great stress and may lose their eggs – essentially, miscarry – cutting off the next generation.

Leo Bower said many Hudson fish are hardy and can be caught and released, “but not shad.”

“Shad dies quickly,” he said. “Once you touch them and that, they don’t live long.”

The end goal of the DEC is to reopen the Hudson for take-out and commercial fishing. Allowing catch-and-release fishing before these targets are achieved may only have a slight effect on populations, especially compared to commercial fishing trawls.

But one day, another generation of Hudson Valley anglers may be able to smoke shad like previous generations. Maybe they’ll even use Leo’s recipe.

About Patricia Kilgore

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