Friday, April 3, 2015

The Shad Woe

In case you have been able to sleep through the morning calls of those pesky, chirpy and somehow cheerful birds that harmonize before even the sun has had its breakfast, it is spring out there and it's happening with or without you.  For you local diners that revel in ancient culinary traditions, that means that the shad are running.  It's roe season and, even though winter outstayed its welcome, the waters have been warming and fish have been migrating for weeks.  So why is there no shad on the menu?  To answer that we have to look at the careful management of a beleaguered species.
Prized Shad Roe

American shad are anadromous fish, and spend most of their life in salt water but return to spawn in the freshwater river in which they hatched.  Most make their first spawning run when they are 4-5 years old and in some cases they die after spawning.  In others, normally in rivers farther north, the fish are able to survive.  The commercial season usually begins in Georgia where fish will be caught as they move up the coast heading for their native rivers.  Often drift nets are used for this enterprise and there are many government restrictions.

Warming water temperatures trigger more shad runs farther north, usually fishery openings occur state by state from Georgia all the way to Maine.  Each state regulates its fishery, setting catch restrictions and quotas and in some cases, such as Maryland, the fishery comes under moratorium completely.  This means that there is no commercial harvest at all due to the fact that there just aren't enough fish.  In Virginia there hasn't been a dedicated "commercial season" since 1994 due to low numbers of fish, but there is a small collection of regulated by-catch fishermen who are allowed reported shad landings while fishing for other targeted species.  North Carolina and Delaware commercial seasons are operational, but other factors like shoaling, when sea floor drifts and needs to be dredged before boats can safely pass through, and lingering winter conditions can impede landings.

Long ago, when Native American tribes had sovereignty over our coastal waterways, shad runs numbered in the millions and their oily flesh and robust roe sacs were prized for their pungent, yet savory flavor.  Population growth, overfishing and industrialization have since decimated these stocks.  In the Chesapeake Bay runs used to be around 17-18 million.  Those numbers were slashed to around 2 million by the 1970s.  The Potomac runs disappeared in the 1950s.  Dams disrupt shad migrations and in some cases such as in Pennsylvania, they have halted runs altogether.

Rebuilding programs have been introduced state-by-state in an attempt to get the shad numbers back into healthy standing.  Restocking efforts and dam breaching efforts have been leading the way.  For states like Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, it's important to bring back a species that was once so prolific that you couldn't cross a river in spring without stepping on the backs of shad.

For those of you who look to the rich flavor of shad as a reminder that spring is here and that all is right with the world, you may have to come to terms with the fact that, though the shad are running, it isn't quite like it used to be.  It's a resource that, one state at a time, we are trying to put back together.  Neglect and carelessness has gotten us here.  Patience, understanding and commitment will get us back.  There may be lapses between meals in which you will be able to get your fill of shad.  It just makes it that more special when you do get your roe and fillet.  It's spring, all is right with the world, and the shad will return.          

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