American Shad Fishing on the Hudson River

By Marie Schmidt

The American Shad, with its delicate flavor and history of abundance, has played a long and crucial role on the Hudson valley’s economy. As a natural resource with much potential, the fish have been caught shad as a means of subsistence, commercially, and as a hobby. A silver scaled fish with several black spots on its back, the American Shad generally spans between twenty to twenty-three centimeters in length, weighing between four and six pounds. It is a salt water fish that returns to the same river where it was born in every spring to spawn. The Hudson River provides a spawning habitat for shad, and the fishing season begins each spring as the shad leave the Atlantic Ocean and return to the Hudson, making the Hudson River crucial to the fishery. However, throughout the past century the Shad population has been inconsistent, and as recent numbers hit an all-time low it has forced New York State to develop a radical policy in their efforts to restore the once thriving fishery.

The technology to catch shad is quite simple: two poles are pushed into the ground, holding up a net. The tide of the river will push fish into the net, where they will get caught. Fishermen must then manually remove each fish from the net, a labor intensive procedure that requires round the clock work.  Because the technology is rather simple and inexpensive, motivated workers had the opportunity to make a living through shad fishing, regardless of their financial circumstances. This is exemplified in the New York Folklore article, “Shad Fishing on the Hudson”, in which Nack, a WWII veteran in 1952 tells his story of starting with no money or job, and working his way to making a successful living as a shad fisherman. He tells of how once he starts fishing, he is able to keep working his way up “Well, we fished that for three or four years, then we had enough money to buy another net, and then we finally got enough money to buy a bigger boat, and we worked our way up. We now have three eighteen-foot boats.”  (Voices: Shad Fishing on the Hudson, 2003).

Shad were once the Hudson’s most commercially important fishery. It is likely that Native Americans and early European settlers of the Hudson Valley both fished shad, eating them and using them as a source of agricultural fertilizer (Appendix I. Anadromous fish of the Hudson River, 1967).  By the mid-1700s, a commercial fishery developed. Fishermen of the Hudson Valley would often bring their catch right to the New York City market, where they could meet the demand of a large consumer base. Shad were so abundant that they were considered quite common, and provided a cheap source of nutrition for many throughout the spring (Joseph).

The shad fisheries remained variable but plentiful throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s, with yields peaking in the 1940s (Hatala, 1997). However, over this time period the Hudson River changed dramatically, severely disrupting the shad’s habitat. The river became heavily polluted as sewage was dumped into it, as well as industrial waste from a number of factories that lined the river, and the pollution prevented the fish from up taking oxygen. The Hudson was dredged and filled in order to allow large boats to pass through, disrupting the shallow water close to the bank that is a crucial for spawning as well as an environment for juvenile shad to develop in. Cooling operative plants began operating along the river, killing numerous shad (Kahnle & Hattala, 2010).

All of these changes in the habitat played a role in the decline of shad; however the New York Conservation Department considers the man-made change of greatest consequence to be overfishing (Kahnle & Hattala, 2010). Shad are fished both in rivers and offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, and as New York increased in population size, these fisheries likewise increased in yields, extracting fish at an unsustainable pace. Technological advances, as well as increasing numbers of fishermen, enabled the increased harvest of shad. Additionally the collapse of the Striped Bass fishery in the Atlantic Ocean in the 1980s turned many fishermen to shad, increasing the stress on the offshore shad fishery. After the Shad fishery peaked in the 1940s when almost four million pounds of Shad were caught annually, their steady decline began, and by the next spike in the 1980s the numbers had drastically dropped with only one to two million pounds caught annually (Hattala, 1997).

 

The blank spaces indicate the years that no data was available on the amount of shad caught. This graph shows the abundant past shad runs, with peaks in 1890, the 1940s, and the 1980, and the decline that began after the peak seasons in the 1940s. (Hattala, 1997)

The blank spaces indicate the years that no data was available on the amount of shad caught. This graph shows the abundant past shad runs, with peaks in 1890, the 1940s, and the 1980, and the decline that began after the peak seasons in the 1940s. (Hattala, 1997)

As the quantity of fish declined, this industry that had once provided a profitable career to many also declined, and it is estimated that by 2001, there were only 35 fishermen still selling Shad (Shapley, 2003).  The harvest had gone down from 3.4 million pounds in 1944 to 101,000 pounds in 2001(Sharply, 2003).  At this point the future did not look promising, and it was becoming clear that in order to salvage the fishery, severe policy was going to have to be developed.

New York has been regulating shad fisheries since as early as 1908, when State law required nets to be taken up at sunset Thursday and left out of water until Monday at sunrise in an attempt to decrease fishing intensity in the area (Appendix I. Anadromous fish of the Hudson River, 1967). However, in 1979, policy was taken to a new level when the NY Department of Environmental Conservation established the Hudson River Fisheries Unit to study shad populations, in order to gather data on why the populations were declining that could be used for policy making. The different, and often conflicting perspectives of Biologist and fishermen came together, as they worked together to use the data collected in order to establish policy that would permit the fisheries to build up to their previous abundance (Hattala, 1997). However despite the intensified attention to the management of the fishery, fish populations continued to decline as a result of overfishing.

In 1991 Zebra Mussels were accidently introduced into the river from Russia. They eat a lot of zoo plankton and small animals that the shad also had to compete for, putting even more strain onto the already declining populations. In 2010, New York Department of Conservation decided to close the commercial and sport fishery, with the long term goal of allowing the river to reestablish the abundance of shad similar to what had been enjoyed in the 1940s (Kahnle & Hattala, 2010).  Although the fishery had been dissolving for some time, the closure finally ended a long and rich tradition.

The New York Department of Conservation has developed both short and long term plans for renewing the shad population in the Hudson River. They are currently doing extensive research on the current population, and reasons for its decline, as they establish quantitative goals for future populations. Short term, they are developing policy that will minimize loss of fish due to fishing, and to electrical plants. Electrical plants pose a threat because they take in huge amounts of water in their cooling systems, and they often take in fish, as well as fish eggs. The department’s long term goal is to reach a population similar in size as the 1940s population by 2050 (Kahnle & Hattala, 2010).  In order to meet this goal, they plan to implement habitat restoration along the river bank, and to do more research and to create models on how climate change is affecting shad (Kahnle & Hattala, 2010).

Since the 1970s, the state has intensified policy designed to put less strain on the Shad fisheries. Additionally, the Hudson had significantly been cleaned of pollution. However, the shad population has since decreased to the point that it is unclear if the fishery will ever be rekindled. The history of abundance of the resource, and the high rates in which it was once extracted, indicates that the management movement may have come too late. The American Shad industry had a long run, providing food, jobs, and a sport to many past residents of the Hudson Valley. The techniques of catching shad were improved over the years; methods were made more efficient as the fishery commercialized. However, policy did not keep up with the increasing harvests, leading to several severe dips in the annual fish caught over the years, and finally leading to the lowest point in shad history, and the halt of the fishery.

 

Bibliography

“Appendix I. Anadromous fish of the Hudson River.” The Hudson: fish and wildlife. State of New York Hudson River Valley Commission. 1967.  An overview of the history American Shad on the Hudson River, from the Natives use before European settlers came, through the beginning of their decline. The article discusses the early policy and the possible reasons behind the variations in the amount of shad caught over the years.

Harmon, John. ““Uppie, Downie” Commercial shad fishing on the Hudson.” Shad Journal. (1997): 1-8. web. This article discusses state (as of 1997) of the Shad fishery, and how it has changed overtime. It tells the story of people who still rely on the fishery for their livelihood, going in depth on the methods that are used to harvest the fish.

Harply, Dan. “Hudson’s Shad Stock Dwindling.” Poughkeepsie Journal. (2003). Article about the current (as of 2003) numbers of shad, and the circumstances of the fishery.

Hattala, Kathryn A. “Managing Hudson River American Shad A biologist’s perspective on the shad’s ups and downs.” Shad Journal. (1997): 9-11. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. This article discusses the reasons and consequences behind the sharp declines in Shad, and how Biologist and commercial fishermen have begun to work together in making policy that will help to bring populations back up.

Joseph, Richard. “Shad Fishing on the Hudson Half a Century Ago Tales of a family fishery on the Hudson.” Shad Journal. (1997): 16-19. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. This article discusses the past of the Shad fisheries, and the significance that the fish have always had on the people of the area.

Kahnle & Hattala. New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Hudson River American Shad: An Ecosystem-Based Plan for Recovery. 2010. Web. This document discusses how New York intends to recover from the declines in the Shad fisheries-both from a scientific and policy perspective. It also discusses the possibilities on why the fisheries have diminished over time.

Stane, Stephen, Roger Pantella, and Brian Forist. The Hudson An Illustrated Guide to the Living River . New Brumswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996. 59-77. Print. This book gives a short and broad overview on the fish of the Hudson, and how they have been important throughout the past. It discusses the major species, and what makes them significant.

Stang, Douglas. “Spring Fishing for Shad on the Hudson .” New York State Conservationist. 61.5 (2007): 8-10. Web. 23 Apr. 2013. This article describes sport fishing on the Hudson, and how technical that it has become as passionate anglers have perfected techniques from optimum water current and debt, to what color of shad dart should be used to catch the fish.

Stewart, Emily. “Hudson River shad fishing ban continues as stock stays low.” Poughkeepsie Journal. (2010): n. page. Web. 22 Apr. 2013. This article discusses some of the possible reasons of the 2010 ban, and the positive reactions that environmental groups have shown to this ban.

Voices: Shad Fishing on the Hudson. “New York Journal of New Folklore. 29. 2003. In this article Nack tells his story of getting home as a WWII veteran, and beginning his career as a shad fishermen. It shows how a man is able to build his way up in the fishery, beginning with nothing.

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