Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shad Season = Dad Season

"So, you know, I told Tony th-FISH ON!"  
A conversation ends abruptly as my once calm fishing pole becomes a bouncing switch, it's convulsions the result of an aggravated silver fish that has just snatched the pointy end of the line.

Fishing line whizzes off my reel as the queen of all herring species, the American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) pulls against the drag in a determined effort to free herself.

THUD.... thud.... thunkwhir-whir-whir-whir-thud-thunk...-whir-whir-whir-whir-whir...RAT-ATTLE-tattle...
There's a commotion on our tiny boat; I step over tackle boxes, around my family, and down into the metal hull; my sister reels in her line to get it out of the way; my father reaches for the aluminum net and accidentally drops it in the boat, causing a clatter.

As I bring the fish close to the surface and my father's net, it's tail splashes water around at the surface;
zzzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZ! whir-whir-whir-whir... whir-whir... splash...  spli-splish! 
Seeing us, the queen of the herrings dives, fighting my drag, and I must lift the pole up and reel in line as I lower it down in order to bring her back to the surface...

SLOSH! Slappety-slappety, slap-slap!
When my father has a clear view, he plunges the net in the water, and lifts the flipping, dripping fish out on to the deck.  We quickly remove the hook from her jaw, and lift her up for a quick photo together, as if she were a beautiful sculpture in the art museum of a foreign country...

Having caught all the fish we want to eat (2 for each of us, though we're allowed 6 each by Massachusetts state law), we say our thank-yous to the fish for its fight, and release the milky-silver river queen back into her domain.  We all hoot and holler and smile as we cast our lines out for another go, wondering which of us will hook-up next.  Shad season is dad season.

American Shad are the largest of the herring species (family clupeidae).  Adults are around 2 feet long and 3 pounds, though the roe shad (females) are larger than the bucks (males).  During the month of May, my father and sister and I drive to Holyoke, Massachusetts to catch them.  We put our boat in on the Connecticut River just under the Holyoke Dam to intercept them on their spawning run.  See, shad are "anadromous" fish, meaning that they live their adult lives in the ocean, but swim back up coastal rivers in order to reproduce.  (Sound familiar?  You've probably heard this before about salmon, another anadromous fish!)  Shad that leave their river homes as juveniles at 1 year old may swim thousands of miles away to feed on oceanic plankton, but adults return to and spawn in the same river where they were born.  As soon as these rivers reaches 58 degrees Fahrenheit in the springtime, adult fish journey upstream past natural and man-made obstacles to reach their spawning grounds.  This means that the "shad run" starts first down around Florida, and ends last up in Canada.  By May, they are running up the nearby Connecticut River, and I pray I am stateside with my father for a great bonding activity and a seasonal gourmet treat.

Gonads from a female Alosa sapidissima (i.e. shad roe)
Of course the Connecticut River is the primo place to find American Shad, all the locals would have you believe.  And why not?  Each year, between one quarter and one half million American shad swim past this one area in just a few weeks.  They don't feed when they are running, but they see our "darts" (special little lures used for just this purpose) and snap at them, annoyed.  They provide us with a great fight, as they are struggling for the chance to reproduce.  But being foodies, we also harvest a few females for their "roe," the hundreds of thousands of unfertilized eggs stored in the female's paired gonads.  Cooking the gonads in butter and parsley yields a delicious meal tasting like a lighter lobster, as my father likes to say, as the eggs are full of energy-rich oils and proteins.  But I digress.  I said the Connecticut River was the best place to find the shad; I didn't say you ought to join in the slaughter!  Recall that shad have obstacles to pass on the journey upstream - like the Holyoke Dam.  Often, we aid the anadromous fish migrations with fish "ladders," pools of water that climb like steps over the dam.  But at the Holyoke Dam, there's a much more unique approach.  A fish elevator!  That's right; every shad that moves over the dam will be lifted by an elevator that runs continuously during the shad season.  A box of water closes at the base of the dam full of shad confused at the wall blocking their path.  Then, they are lifted up to the level of the dam, and poured through a long tank called a raceway.  The clear acrylic wall of one side of the raceway allows computers (once, scientists with clipboards) to tally exactly how many of each species of fish is passing through.  It also allows curious nature tourists to see the shad face-to-face as they are making their natural (well, in a compromise with mankind) migration upstream.  And it's totally free, so put it on your calendar of great seasonal activities and check it out!  Makes a great pre-father's day activity!

There are no good videos of the Hadley Falls Fish Lift in action; you'll have to see it in person!

For the further curious...  The shad's ecological importance (as defined by us) is primarily as an energy coupling. They feed on the tiny crustaceans adrift in the sea (copepods and mysids), and are in turn eaten by our charismatic megafauna - the creatures we know and love - eagles, seals, tuna, sharks.  Planktonic creatures are too small a meal for these large animals (with a few exceptions, like the Basking Shark), but the shad are an ideal food source.  Their relatively short life spans and high "fecundity" (great number of eggs) mean their population growth rate is high, and thus many can be harvested without severe damage to the population.  (Sharks, in contrast, have a very low fecundity, and a very late age at maturity - their populations tolerate very little harvest, and that's why shark species worldwide are becoming endangered so quickly from the massive shark finning industry.)  Even so, the power of human predation has resulted in the reduction of shad landings from 50 million tons in 1890 to 2 million tons today.  No, they are not endangered - but they are not as plentiful a food source for our favorite predators as they once were.  And considering the other problems that these creatures face with pollution, finning, and habitat destruction, who knows how long our favorite species will be with us?

I remain uncertain as to whether or not various Earth creatures will survive the next few generations of mankind's oft-cruel attentions.  But by keeping my energy use low and sharing these wildlife traditions with my father and others, I fight for their existence; and I retain a living memory of any species lost in honor of their time spent struggling with us in our mutual battle to achieve modern ecological harmony on this planet.

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