When Christopher Letts was getting ready to host an $85-per-person gourmet shad bake at Prince Street’s Savoy restaurant two weeks ago, he had a problem: where to get the fish. Ron Ingold, whose family had harvested shad near the George Washington Bridge for generations, had quit the business. Dennis Hardy, now the mayor of Piermont, gave it up a couple of years ago. Bob Gabrielson, the 70-year-old dean of shad fishing, was planning to set a few nets close to shore, but he hadn’t put them out yet.
In the end, Savoy got the fish from Wild Edibles on Elizabeth Street. But the message was clear: commercial shad fishing, a tradition on the lower Hudson River for centuries, a staple of the local economy, and a signal of spring, is fading away. “When the red ball drops on midnight on December 31, 1999, it’s almost like the last shad fisherman is going to disappear from the face of the earth,” says Letts, an educator for the Hudson River Foundation, a
research group. “It’s been a hell of a ride.”
Shad don’t live their lives in the Hudson; they go upriver to spawn. This happens in early April, just about the time New York’s shadbush trees begin to bloom. In recent weeks, perhaps as many as a million American shad have swum in from the Atlantic. They loiter for a day or two in the waters off Manhattan, allowing their bodies to make the changes necessary to spend six to eight weeks living as freshwater fish. Decades ago, hundreds of fishermen would have been waiting for them, nets stretched across poles anchored deep in the muck. Today there are probably no more than 10 serious fishermen left. Most are senior citizens.”I’m the last of the Mohicans,” Gabrielson says.
For lots of people, it’s news that anything from the Hudson is safe to eat. But the shad don’t participate in the river’s food chain. They binge in the ocean, then starve themselves as they swim inland. The fishermen net them— since they aren’t eating, they won’t take bait— on the way in, when the bucks are still fat and firm and the females ripe with roe. (This delicacy received lasting recognition in 1928, with the Cole Porter lyric “Waiter, bring me shad roe.”)
The fish go as far north as Albany. When the adults head back to the ocean— about the time the lilacs bloom in Peekskill— “they don’t feel like fish, they feel like roofing shingles,” says Letts. Up in the Hudson Valley, there’s even an expression: “skinny as a June shad.”
Like most of the shad men, Gabrielson waxes rhapsodic about his fish. “The shad is my little queen,” he says. “The first shad I see every year, believe it or not, I give it a kiss.”
The Latin name for shad, Alosa sapidissima, means “most delicious of herrings,” but it isn’t easy getting at the meat: each fish has a whopping 769 bones, as compared to Homo sapiens‘s meager 206. Tom Lake, a 51-year-old former manager at IBM who fishes up near Newburgh and is getting a graduate degree in archaeology, has unearthed 3000-year-old shad bones from Native American hearths along the Hudson shore.
During World War II, according to Letts, local fishermen were exempt from the draft; they were needed to feed the troops. The watermen took in more than 3 million pounds of shad every year from 1939 to 1945. Fish stocks have never fully recovered.
Indeed, the last time the catch hit a million pounds was in 1980; in 1998 it was a mere 221,554. New York’s shad defenders blame some of this decline on other states’ ocean fisheries, which they claim took notice of shad in the mid 1980s, after other species— including groundfish like flounder— began to decline.
Like birds, shad spend most of their lives following a long migratory path, which runs from North Carolina in the winter to Canada in the summer. After about age five, the shad take a spring detour, returning to spawn in the exact same rivers in which they were born. Gabrielson, for one, is convinced that the high-tech fishing boats off the New Jersey coast are picking off Hudson shad just as they make the turn for home.
“These guys get out their miles of net and just wipe out an entire run,” Gabrielson grouses. “They’re catching the poor little devils before they ever get in to lay an egg.”
That claim makes New Jersey’s fishermen furious, especially since a 1998 study by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission failed to back it up. Nevertheless, coastal shad fisheries will be phased out over the next five years.
But in the long run rival fishermen are probably a minor menace. A more ferocious foe is in fact one of the Hudson’s other prized fish: the striped bass. Commercial fishing for bass was banned in 1976, after it was discovered that the bass were contaminated with cancer-causing PCBs. Stripers— which can grow to 40 or 50 pounds, versus a measly six or so pounds for the shad— have been multiplying wildly ever since. Those rapacious fish are feeding not only on adult shad, but on the young that try to make the run down the river in the fall.
Even more frustrating, fishermen are now catching three useless bass to every shad. The stripers are tough and muscular; they get thoroughly tangled in the nets. “Shad you just sort of flip out,” says Piermont mayor Hardy. “It’s exhausting picking out hundreds of pounds of bass.”
Gabrielson once set 4000 feet of net every season. He’s down to 600, because that’s all he can handle. “I’d end up with a million pounds of striped bass, and it would take me a year to get them out.”
Now that PCB levels are declining, commercial fishermen would like to keep a few of those stripers to sell at market. But sport fishermen are vigorously opposed, imagining that overfishing could deplete the bass once again. And the truth is, a lot of the affluent towns along the river don’t love the shad trade the way they used to. “The land along the river is just so costly, and marinas in my area don’t want commercial fishermen,” says Hardy. “They have all the plastic luxury boats, and they don’t want a smelly fishing boat.”
In the old days, townspeople lined the docks as the boats came in. The fish were fresh and cheap. When April rolled around, the locals ditched their jobs and headed for the river. There were 14 fishing camps in Nyack alone, and they supported dockworkers, ice suppliers, and the truckers who took the fish to Fulton Market.
Some years were good, some were bad. The late Henry Gourdine, one of the Hudson’s fishing legends, used to tell this tale about 1926: “I drove a Cadillac to the dock to start the season. On the last day, after I paid the crew’s grocery bill, I walked home.”
“It ain’t all profit, you know,” Gabrielson says. “It’s a way of life going by the wayside.”
Lake, who spends part of the spring lecturing at shad bakes the Hudson River Foundation sponsors, feels the same way. “We get $3 a fish,” he says. “That’s for the fish plus the roe. The consumer probably pays $8 for the roe, $4 for the fish.” Lake doesn’t even bother toting up the cost of gas and nets. “It’s a sensory experience as much as a business,” he says.
Gabrielson agrees. He loves the river, loves being out at the crack of dawn and in the middle of the night. He doesn’t hate the bass. He doesn’t even mind the harbor seals that this year have been feasting at his nets, nipping the heads off the beleaguered shad. “I don’t begrudge any little critter,” he says. “Last year I was out working, and I looked up in the sky and there’s an osprey with a great big striped bass in his claws. What a sight that was!”