River of Life: Shad Fishing on the Hudson River

By Mai Nguyen

Fishing is perhaps the most intimate relationship humans have with the Hudson River. The river has been a source of food and livelihoods for the local population and the East Coast’s most important source of shad fish since the 19th century. While commercial fishing remains a seasonal source of income as much as it did 150 years ago, its importance in the culture of the Hudson Valley has diminished as the supply of the Hudson’s major fish has sharply decreased due to overfishing, pollution, and habitat loss caused by the industrialization of the area.

Figure 1. American Sketches: Shad-fishing on the Hudson [The Illustrated London News, Aug 7, 1875]  (Source: albanyinstitute.org)

Figure 1. American Sketches: Shad-fishing on the Hudson [The Illustrated London News, Aug 7, 1875]
(Source: albanyinstitute.org)

The History of the Hudson’s American Shad Fish

Native Americans harvested shad fish long before the arrival of European settlers, who had plenty of fish to feast on when they came to region. As Adriean Van der Donck, one of the documenters of the first Dutch settlements, noted, “this river is full of fishes.” [1] During the 1800’s, the fishery for shad on the Hudson River developed rapidly, and overharvesting of shad peak in the 1890s, with catches  declining quickly thereafter.[2] During this time, farmers salted shad in barrels for their own winter consumption or for commercial purposes and travelled miles to obtain the fish during the spring run.

Early fishing methods consisted of fyke and hoop nets, but these were replaced by the more efficient stake gill net by 1842. Even at this early date, nets nearly blocked the channel and a decline in shad abundance was anticipated. In 1825, nursery and spawning grounds, which originally extended from Kingston to Glens Falls, were restricted when a State dam was constructed at Troy (located below Glens Falls).[3] Since the combination of an intensive fishery and reduced spawning and nursery grounds apparently caused a reduction in the annual runs, attempts were made to save shade. In 1868, the New York Fish Commission organized an artificial propagation operation with river fishermen. In 1896, the Fisheries, Game and Forest Commission suggested lift nets for two consecutive days and three nights per week to ‘run’.[4] Increases in abundance of shad during the late 1800’s were attributed to these attempts. In 1896, the Commission found the shad fishery industry to be of great value ($184,898) with a total of 3,471 nets in both New York and. New Jersey landed 1,155,610 shad weighing 4,044,635 pounds.[5]

Concern has been expressed from time to time over the effect of dredging upon the shad. In 1899, a 12-foot channel from Coxsackie to Waterford was dredged to 27 feet from Albany to Hudson and by 1931 had been extended to New York City. Dredging reached its peak between 1926 and 1934 destroyed many of the sandbars over which the shad spawned.[6] By the turn of the century, the conditions of shad fish worsened because of serious pollution caused by a rapidly industrializing New York City dumping garbage and industrial waste in the river. At the same time, new immigration population settling in the Hudson Valley found shad to be an easy and cheap food supply, as every spring the shad fish returned to the Hudson by the thousands.[7] Thus, migration subjected shad fish to dangers at various places along the river. The lack of record of shad fishing during the early 1900s probably indicated that there was a lack of fishing at the time, which helped the shad stock to rebuild enough to produce a large harvest during the years leading up to World War II. Shad fishing was a valued trade during the war, with hundreds of fishermen set their nets each spring during the war period.[8] Overfishing during this period led to the next stock of collapse occurring during the 1950s.

Figure 1. Freshly caught shad from the Hudson (Source: Lee Ferris/poughkeepsiejournal.com) The American shad is the Hudson’s largest river herring. It can reach a length of 30 inches and a weight of more than 10 pounds. Usually between Hyde Park and Catskill, adults appear in late March and spawn until early June. Most Hudson shad may live 10 to 11 years.

Figure 1. Freshly caught shad from the Hudson (Source: Lee Ferris/poughkeepsiejournal.com)
The American shad is the Hudson’s largest river herring. It can reach a length of 30 inches and a weight of more than 10 pounds. Usually between Hyde Park and Catskill, adults appear in late March and spawn until early June. Most Hudson shad may live 10 to 11 years. [9]

The Lives of Hudson River Fishermen

Although women were involved in the fish trade on shore, it was men who netted the fish out on the Hudson River, and their accounts are fading. Fishing on the Hudson historically has not been a full-time occupation but more of a seasonal source of income. In 2009, only six sets of rivermen fishing for shad on the Hudson remained, and four of them were from Dutchess County.[10] According to the interview conducted by Dan Shapley, following the shad sign on Route 9 across from Locust Grove to Beechwood Avenue, one can find the house of John Mylod, the only remaining fisherman in Poughkeepsie. Starting to fish in the early 1970s, he catches shad and herring in the spring and blue crabs in the late summer and fall. “At one point in the 1950s, maybe before there were 15 guys fishing, all out of Poughkeepsie,” Mylod said. By the river where Shadows and the Grandview are located, there was “Shad Row”- a set of docks and shacks where fishermen camped, dried nets and sold fish. Currently, Mylod sells whole fish to Adam’s Fair-acre Farms as well as smoked fillets and smoked shad spread under the label “The Very Best There Is.” His customers are local people who have grown up eating shad and immigrants from parts of the Caribbean and Asia where eating locally caught fish is a fundamental part of the culture.[11]

Dan Lehan, a retired 80-years-old fisherman from Hyde Park, explained the custom of shad fishing and the friendly atmosphere between the fishermen. Whoever was the first one to the designated fishing spot would set his nets first, with the next drifting nets fifteen minutes later, and so on. The first net presumably would get more fish that the other ones, however, back in his day, this was not an issue because “the fish were so plentiful,” and the fishermen did not steal from each other. He also spoke about a special connection to the river that was shared by other fisherman: “I love the river. I lived on the river. When I was kid I used to swim on the river. The river and I are one piece…”[12]

Looking Forward?

The combination of overfishing, toxic pollution caused by sewage and water usage at electric power plants, and invasive species has led to destruction of the shad fish’s habitat, which will require a long time to recover. In addition, the move toward mass-produced food at supermarkets  also diminished the importance of fishing in the culture of Hudson Valley. As a measure to address the declining shad population, in 2008, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation imposed restriction on fishing for local shad by limiting fishing to only three days a week. With funding from the environmental group Riverkeeper and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Chris Nack and his father Gary Nack, descendants of the region’s legendary fisherman Everett Nack, are trying to recover critical spawning and nursery habitat of the shad in shallow and low-energy areas. [13] These habitats have been disrupted by dredging projects in the 20th century for commercial shipping. They study the living and growth conditions of the fish in various shallow-water habitats along the river where juvenile shad dwell after spawning, such as what they are eating and how fast they are growing. According to Chris Nack, the goal of the project is to see if there is a particular habitat shad like and then try to restore some habitats and protect other habitats in the hopes to increase the survival of the larval shad.

As other species are too contaminated with PCBs and other pollutants, shad and blue crab are the only Hudson species that can be sold commercially. However, the regulations have resulted in limited supplies to restaurants of local shad, which is prized for its meaty flesh and delicate taste. Restaurants and markets in the area have to switch to buying more from Fulton Fish Market in New York City, which usually gets its supply from Maryland.[14] While the ban on shad fishing in the Hudson has negative impact on the few remaining commercial fishermen, John Lipscomb, a patrol boat operator for Riverkeeper, commented that, “the skills and techniques and lore of that centuries old fishery is a hard thing to lose. But if you are going to choose between a fishery and a fish, you have to go with the fish.” [15] Meanwhile, expressing more nostalgia for the diminishing fishery, Gary Nack said, “I’ll never see the fishery open again…Maybe, somehow, before I go, the heritage – how to fish, how to clean them, how to process them…,”  leaving his sentence unfinished.[16]

 

APPENDIX: SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING

Henshaw, Robert E., ed.  Environmental History of the Hudson River: Human Uses that Changed the Ecology, Ecology that Changed Human Uses

Limburg, Karin, Kathryn Hattala, Andrew Kahnle, and John Waldman. The Hudson River Estuary. 

Stanne, Stephen P., Roger G. Panetta, and Brian E. Forist, The Hudson: An Illustrated Guide to the Living River.

Wahlberg, Holly. Reflections on a River- The Hudson River in Dutchess County History.

Footnotes:

[1] Kathryn Hattala, Andrew Kahnle, Karin Limburg, and John Waldman, Fisheries of the Hudson River Estuary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 2.

[2] Marist Digital Library’s Archive. Appendix I: Anadromous Fish of the Hudson River. http://library.marist.edu/diglib/EnvSci/archives/fisherie/nyhudsonrvalley/fw-appendixi.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 13.

[8] Ibid, 14.

[9] Brian Forist, Roger Pannetta, and Stephen Stanne, The Hudson – An Illustrated Guide to the Living River (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 70.

[10] Dan Shapley, “Commercial Fishing in Dutchess County,” in Reflections on a River- The Hudson River in Dutchess County History, ed. Holly Wahlberg, (New York: Dutchess County Historical Society, 2009), 120.

[11] Ibid, 127.

[12] Ibid, p.124

[13]John Ferro, “Hudson Shad Recovery Hangs on Habitat,” Poughkeepsie Journal, July 17, 2012.

[14] Alyssa Jung, “Shad Hard to Find in Local Restaurants,” Poughkeepsie Journal, May 9, 2009.

[15] Emily Stewart, “Hudson River Shad Fishing Band Continues as Stock Stays Low,” Poughkeepsie Journal, April 10, 2011.

[16] Ferro, ““Hudson Shad Recovery Hangs on Habitat.”

 

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