Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/April 1895/The Shad's Annual Pilgrimage

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AS the sun, at the close of his winter's recession, marches into higher latitudes, he awakens in successive zones both animal and vegetable worlds to the full activities of their being, and exerts, even in their remote and hidden seclusion, his influence upon the finny inhabitants of the deep. With the northward advance of the vivifying orb, the shad (Alosa sapidilla), the alewife, the menhaden, and other migratory fish wheel into line, and, massed in solid column, approach our coasts, welcome heralds of the spring. Beginning in Florida in January, the various colonies have quitted their ocean abode, and in consecutive order are entering our rivers from the St. John's of Florida to the St. John of New Brunswick. Burdened with the myriad germs of a coming generation, it is the reproductive instinct that impels the shad to quit the security of the deep sea that it may cradle its precious freight in the rocking waters of a clear, running stream.

In common with alewives and menhaden, shad are members of the herring family, which fish they so far resemble that one of the British species is called by the Scotch fisher folk "king of the herrings," an appellation, however, more likely suggested by the commonly entertained belief that the herring shoals are led by one of enormous size, styled the king, and whose capture or destruction is presumed to occasion ill luck to the fishermen. The herring family are in their retirement deep-sea fish, and it is likely that the shad and menhaden winter off our coasts in depths of hundreds of fathoms. At an average of perhaps a hundred miles from the New Jersey and Long Island shore lies the edge of the great continental plateau, beyond which the water deepens rapidly, and there, at no great distance from its border, is probably the abiding place of many of our finny migrants. The fish frequenting each river are probably restricted to neighboring portions of the ocean, it being very unlikely that the different colonies are grouped together, as is generally supposed, in one gathering place. Denizens of the shallows, as well as of the remote profound, they are therefore subjected to great variations of pressure, not unlikely at times approaching half a ton to the square inch. At its migratory period the shad rises to the surface from the deep, and the sudden change of pressure thereby occasioned would do great violence to its bodily structure but for an apparent special provision of Nature, to be later explained.

In the marine profound there are fishes in abundant variety that exist at depths of several miles, and perhaps also in its nethermost and as yet unknown deeps. Many of these fish seem to be limited to certain oceanic strata to which their organization may be specially adapted and to no other. From time immemorial finny creatures of soft and fluffy substance and distorted shape have been found floating, sometimes dead, sometimes barely living, upon the surface of the sea; but, until the explorations of the Challenger afforded the solution, their nature and origin remained a mystery. The fish then drawn up from the far deep presented upon emergence the same bloated and unsubstantial appearance, which, by the scientists of that famous expedition, was ascribed to the expansion of the contained gases incident to the sudden release of enormous pressure. This expansion had so ruptured or puffed out the tissues of the creature that its entire semblance was without doubt radically altered, the puffy and loosely coherent mass of flesh having originally been a firm and compact substance. Fish of such localized habitat, if venturing too far above their proper stratum, would, despite their utmost effort, be buoyed to the surface by the constantly enlarging volume of the imprisoned gases, dilating measurably with the diminution of the weight or depth of the overlying water, and to such mischances is due the occasional appearance of these forlorn castaways upon the wide bosom of the deep.

Against such injury or inconvenience the shad, in common with its congeners, is seemingly secured by an anatomical peculiarity not as yet fully understood, but believed to be a distinctive adaptation of Nature. In the shad's head there appear a number of tubes presumed to exist for the introduction into the blood and system generally of a sufficiency of water, which fluid may be absorbed or extruded with increase or with diminution of pressure, and the tissues become thus adjusted to the varying strain. . This presumptive function does not, of course, admit of experimental observation, and in the absence of such demonstration the mode of operation and, indeed, even the purpose of the singular tubes must to some extent remain a subject of speculation.

Of all our marine food fish shad may be said to be the most popular; as an edible and as a delicacy it appears upon the table of both the poor and the rich, being equally esteemed by the epicurean as well as by the unpampered palate. The Chinese have a species of shad, sam-lai (Alosa Reevesii), alleged to be as savory as our own, but larger and less bony. It ascends the Yang-tse-Kiang, a river three thousand miles in length, to spawn in its upper waters, but at the end of its long journey becomes worthless through emaciation. As with ourselves, the first fish of the season command an extravagant price. The Chinese gourmet, however, differing from his Christian brother, maintains that it needs to be neither baked, boiled, nor fried, but only steamed; such treatment, in his opinion, best developing the flavor. In most of the European streams shad are found, but do not equal the American or Chinese variety in flavor or in nutritious value. We have sent a number of shipments of fry to various parts of Europe with the object of stocking its rivers with our superior fish, but the effort has not been remarkably successful.

Very different, however, has been the result upon the Pacific coast, where the greatest and most brilliant feat of marine acclimatization has been successfully accomplished. Little more than a score of years ago the fry were borne across the continent, and assiduous care and attention during their long journey of over three thousand miles assured the survival of a due portion, which were placed in the Sacramento River. From this and a few later shipments has resulted their present abundance along a coast line of twenty-five hundred miles, extending from southern California to Alaska, being in their season so plentiful in some streams that barrels of them are pitchforked out of the water. It was only two or three years after the first planting that a few more or less mature specimens were obtained from the Sacramento. Gradually the number of marketable fish increased until now they almost equal in some of their localities the salmon in abundance, the price having declined from the initial figure of a dollar a pound, obtained while the fish were yet scarce, to an average of ten cents a pound in 1889, and four cents in 1802. From the slender colonies originally transported, forming less than one per cent of the number annually placed in Atlantic waters, and involving the expenditure of a comparative trifle, the inhabitants of a long stretch of coast now derive a valuable and important food supply.

Until the Pacific coast plantings it was assumed that the shad invariably returned to the stream that gave them birth, and this, as a rule, is perhaps correct. The conditions of the California coast evidently operate, however, to the diffusion of the fish, they having in many instances established themselves in rivers far from the Sacramento. This movement may be due to the balmy Japanese current, the Gulf Stream of the Pacific, which laves its northeastern shore and agreeably tempers its climate. Influenced by its genial flow and pursuing its track, the shad have wandered northward, and, if they maintain their advance, as they probably will, their ultimate establishment in the river system of Asia maybe regarded as assured. Owing to various favorable conditions, the shad not only multiplies rapidly in its new abode, but in some localities has modified its habits, being found in varying abundance throughout the year. Moreover, it attains an exceptional size; seven and eight pound fish are common in California, but are almost unknown with us, and there have been exposed for sale in the San Francisco market shad of a weight as high as twelve and thirteen pounds. This superiority in size is not unlikely due mainly to a less actively prosecuted fishery, for shad of equal weight were known to our fathers. The heaviest fish are probably the growth of a number of years, and an exhaustive fishery that each season leaves but few survivors necessarily tends to eliminate the larger individuals.

Upon the Atlantic coast the utmost effort of the Fish Commissioners, supported by ample State and national expenditure, seems powerless to effect a renewal of the abundance of old. No more saddening exhibitions of man's improvidence are afforded than by the noble rivers that have been depleted or exhausted of their finny treasures, and of such perhaps the most striking are those presented by the larger affluents of Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac and the Susquehanna. Sixty years ago, through the greater course of these long streams, both the shad and the alewife, or fresh-water herring, existed in almost incredible numbers. In the Potomac the two species would often ascend the river together, and it was not an uncommon draught to secure several hundred thousand herring and several thousand shad at a single haul. The fishermen, in drawing the seine on shore, would pile the herring knee-deep for twelve or fifteen feet landward, and then walk or wade through the mass, thrusting in their arms and picking out the shad. The herring so stacked would be sometimes sold for a mere trifle, sometimes be given away; often, although an edible fish, and perhaps superior in that respect to the common herring, would be carted off for manure; and sometimes, for lack of even that demand, would be allowed to float away upon the rising tide. In 1832 nine hundred and fifty thousand, accurately counted, were taken out at one draught; the number of shad seined was often four thousand and upward, and the selling price as low as a dollar and a half per hundred fish. Of such destructive fishing a constant decline in the annual catch was the inevitable result, and thus it happened that for some years prior to the war practical exhaustion had been attained. The abatement of the fishery during that period so far restocked the river that it was renewed with profit upon the restoration of peace, but improvidence again resulted in impoverishment. In the early seventies government aid was invoked and extended; many millions of shad fry were artificially hatched and placed in the river, and thus, by constant reparative effort, a scant measure of plenty is at present with difficulty maintained.

In the golden days of their former abundance no shad were so highly prized as those captured in the upper reaches of the Susquehanna, whose clear, running waters only the better conditioned could attain, and which in their long journey against a fresh and swiftly flowing stream were presumed to acquire a flavor and excellence peculiarly their own. When the first settlers of the Wyoming Valley found their abiding place in the glades of its forested river that beneath the budding leafage of the spring rippled cheerily to the far-distant sea, they were amazed and confounded at the sudden revelation of its wondrous treasure of fish. The dreary winter of seclusion and solitude, of cold and privation, of coarse and scanty food had passed and gone, and the gladdening rays of the returning sun had quickened the face of Nature into joyous life. In their long deprivation the isolated community hungered for the coming fruits of the earth—of fresh food there was little or none—and toil and hardship, unsustained by proper nutrition, told heavily upon the weaker members of the lone and distant settlement. Then it was, in the time of their stress and suffering, that the ocean's bounteous harvest was borne against the fierce current of the swollen river, to diffuse joy and gladness in remote and difficult wilds. It was the assured possession of its fluvial crop that peopled the valley, for not only did this manna of the wilderness tide over the waiting interval between seed time and harvest, but, salted or smoked, afforded a winter supply of nourishing food that during the felling of the forest and the clearing of the land sustained the strength of the industrious pioneer. It, moreover, formed the subject of commerce, or rather, in those rude days, of barter, for the salted product was teamed through the primeval forest to the settlements upon the upper Mohawk and to the infant colonies that struggled for existence where are now the flourishing communities of Syracuse, Oneida, and others of that populous and prosperous section. It has been maintained that the first commercial routes established by mankind were probably those for the acquisition of salt; and the early existence of the ill-defined and perilous way that led to the Onondaga salt springs and to other sources of saline supply instances the assertion. A hundred shad, not unlikely over a quarter of a ton in weight, was the exchangeable value of a bushel of salt, weighing perhaps one fifth as much. Every farmer had an ample store of barreled shad, running from thirty to forty to the pork barrel, a measure that would probably require twice the number of the comparatively immature catch of to-day.

In the van of the ascending shoal that extended from bank to bank of the eddying stream were massed the largest and the strongest fish, the steady, even approach of their densely compacted ranks being betrayed by a nearing ripple, visible at a distance of several hundred yards. From beyond the submerged borders of the continent, whence it had taken its departure, an advance of six or seven hundred miles had been accomplished, with orderly movement and close formation, by this vanguard of the finny host. Day after day, in ocean's gloom and river's light, through billowy forest and far-rolling meadow, unseen and unmolested of man, the column had struggled onward. Battling with a madly contending current, sometimes halting, sometimes retreating,[1] and again advancing as the swirling waters became colder or warmer, many of the weaker and smaller fell out of the serried ranks, but the larger and stronger pushed unflaggingly forward to the difficult goal. The upper valley, apparently the bourn of their long and toilsome endeavor, was generally attained about the first of April, the males preceding the roe-burdened fish, successive shoals of each prolonging the fishery for some weeks, the best running eight or nine, and in exceptional instances reaching a weight of eleven and even of twelve pounds.

After the desolation of the lovely valley by the memorable Indian massacre of 1778, its widowed and fatherless were the objects of much kindly solicitude, and among the thoughtful administrations of the rugged frontiersmen was what became known as the widow's haul. The first Sunday after the season began the entire catch of the seine, whether much or little, was set apart for their exclusive benefit, and in 1790 one of these hauls, near Wilkesbarre, resulted in an authenticated total catch of ten thousand shad, and even larger draughts were reported from Nanticoke and Bloomsburg. The damming of the river, conjoined with wasteful methods of capture, utterly extinguished these magnificent fisheries, of which former abundance a partial renewal is hoped for from the labors of the Pennsylvania Fish Commission.

The lavish generosity of Nature has everywhere been abused, and the finny treasures of the Delaware have been wasted with the same reckless prodigality and unconcern for the future that have elsewhere marked the fishery. In 1891 the joint action of the commissions of New York and Pennsylvania, in establishing an effective fishway at Lackawaxen dam upon the Delaware, opened an additional hundred miles of that splendid stream to the shad. Since the erection of the obstruction in 1823 the spawning grounds of the upper river had been inaccessible to the fish; but now, after an absence of nearly seventy years, they are caught at Downsville, ]Sr. Y., upon the Popacton Branch, and at Deposit, upon the West Branch, being at their farthest three hundred miles from the sea. Where for two generations they have been unknown exists a promising fishery, which, with provident and careful administration, would doubtless become as bountiful as of yore. It was above this newly opened fish way that the season's largest shad was caught in 1891. As with the Susquehanna,-the long journey seems to insure the presence of fish of superior size and flavor, and "Delaware River shad" is now a conspicuous sign in the markets of the West.

In our noble Hudson the construction of dams has not been so disastrous to its fishery, and although the shad formerly ascended to Glens Falls, and even to Saratoga Lake, their spawning grounds are now confined to beds in the river's course between Hudson and the Troy dam. Despite the multiplicity of gill nets, its annual stocking with millions of fry affords a substantial supply, that, however, falls far short of the requirement and is but a poor fraction of the yield of aforetime. Our catch under proper regulations and due access to the upper river could doubtless be greatly enlarged, the last season's product being estimated by the Fish Commission at about eight hundred thousand fish.

In colonial times shad were so extraordinarily cheap and abundant in the Connecticut Valley that a measure of discredit was attached to their appearance on the table. The possession of the salted fish, to the exclusion of the orthodox and more luxurious pork, argued the poverty of the host, and, even when fresh, it was considered vulgar fare, inasmuch as shad sold for years as low as a cent apiece. The denser peopling of the valley and the consequent decline of the catch naturally occasioned a higher appreciation of the once-despised fish, especially among those with whom cheapness is synonymous with worthlessness. The Connecticut is a river of smaller volume than the streams already discussed, and its banks are thickly populated—circumstances tending to aggravate the difficulties of restocking, the principal obstacle probably being, there as elsewhere, the rapacity and improvidence of the fishermen. About 1870, when the effort of the commissioners was begun, they derided their undertaking, but a few years later the whilom scorners begged them to desist, alleging that the abundance was so great that they could get no due remuneration for their catch. The New York wholesale price, they complained, was reduced to three dollars per hundred fish, and they argued that it was useless and a scandalous waste of the people's money to hatch fish beyond the absorptive capacity of the markets. The general introduction of speedier and of increased transportation facilities, of refrigerator cars, and of cold storage warehouses soon greatly extended, not only the area but also the period, of consumption. Thus it happened that a wider and more enduring market speedily abated the surplus that the fishermen bewailed—a surplus which, under an ever-increasing demand, ere long dwindled to a deficiency. The existence in a densely populated territory of a remunerative fishery, free and open to all comers, conjoined with the adoption of improved devices of wholesale capture, created a lamentable dearth that the utmost effort availed little to relieve.

The river at its mouth discharges its current to the westward, so that along the Connecticut shore of the sound a strip of fresh water extends a dozen miles before mingling with the salt sea. This belt is practically a portion of the river, and the fish, approaching, probably, from the eastern entrance of the sound, enter the strip at its terminus; then, retracing their course, pursue their way through the fresh water to the actual mouth of the river, within which the law prohibits the construction of pound nets. These formidable engines of finny destruction were ranged at short intervals, across the route of the fish, in the fresh-water belt, some of them extending over a mile into the sound. In constant operation, ingulfing fish every hour of the day and night without intermission or cessation, the natural result was the capture, in the sound waters, of the larger portion of the run of shad. When the sorely harried fish finally entered the river, they were beset with scores of gill nets, such as we are familiar with in the Hudson, and which were stretched at short distances as far as Essex, beyond which the poor remnant encountered the sweep nets, which one after another were dragged across the river as fast as possible. In a few years the annual catch declined from nearly half a million to a mere fraction, and at present will average but little more than thirty thousand, the commissioners of late having found it useless to stock with liberality. 'The State of Massachusetts procured the erection at Holyoke dam of a thoroughly serviceable fishway, thereby opening the upper river to the shad, and, besides, freely colonized with fry the portion that she controlled. The effort was vain, the expenditure useless, and the complaints of her Fish Commission to that of Connecticut that the shad are debarred from her waters have failed to effect material redress. The offending fishermen, however, contend that the lack of shad is due to river pollution, to the diversion of the current by the construction of the Government breakwater at its mouth, and to other causes not subject to their influence or control.

The early settlers in Massachusetts found immense numbers of shad in the various rivers of the colony, and, following the Indian practice, were accustomed to use their surplus catch as manure, placing a thousand fish to the acre. The Towsers of that day evidently gave trouble, as would appear from the following quaint and amusing town law of Ipswich passed in May, 1644:

"It is ordered that all Doggs for the space of three weeks after the publishing hereof shall have one Legg Tyed up. If such a Dogg should break loose and be founde in any Cornefielde doing any harme, the Owner of the Dogg shall pay the Damage. If a man refuse to tye up his Doggs legg and he be found scraping up Fish in the Cornefielde, the Owner shall pay 12s., besides whatever Damage the Dogg doth."

Of the shad, man, without doubt, is the greatest agent of destruction, although his wasting effort is exerted only within the borders of his own domain; but beyond, in the open sea, the ranks of the migrating horde are thinned by the shark, porpoise, and dogfish, the seal, otter, and salmon, and, most destructive of all, the bluefish. This dread sea butcher works terrible havoc among all neighboring fish not larger than himself, and in the shoals of shad, like those of the menhaden, he revels in slaughter. His opportunity, however, is brief, and perhaps not frequently exercised upon the incoming fish, his earliest appearance in our latitude being usually later than that of the shad. Along New Jersey, however, there have been instances of shoals of shad being driven upon the shore by his murderous onslaughts, the bluefish being a creature that often seems to chop, maim, and destroy for mere amusement.

The shad, after its entrance into our rivers, eats nothing, the one all-dominating impulse being that of the maintenance of its species; for that it braves every danger and endures every hardship. It presses on, sparing no exertion to attain its goal; if it halts or retreats, it is because the temperature of the river current has fallen too low for the development of its ova. It manifests an acute discrimination of gradations of heat, recognizing promptly differences of a degree or even less. In spawning it seeks a temperature of about 60°, and usually deposits its eggs near sunset, when the water is warmest, the place chosen being often the downstream edge of wide flats, over which the gently flowing current becomes heated to the requisite point. That current thenceforward becomes the foster mother of the deposited ova, its suspended oxygen ever vivifying the slowly developing germ, and, thus cared for, the abandoned and apparently neglected waif waxes apace. As soon as capable of independent movement, the tiny fish, scarce half an inch long, with its yolk sac as yet unabsorbed, strikes out for the deeper portions of the river, its instinct possibly teaching it that to tarry is destruction, for there it would become the assured prey of the minnows, killifish, and other small fry that abide in the shallows. Inasmuch, however, as the young shad possess the continuous dorsal fin along the body incident to the earliest and lowest fishes, the so-called instinct is most likely a reversion to the ancestral habit, such forms being characteristic of deep waters.

Their burden laid down, their object accomplished, the parent fish, worn with privation and spent with effort, turn at last seaward. Emaciated and exhausted, they have become worthless to the fisherman, who frequently observes them dead or apparently dying, drifting down the stream. It is likely, however, that they recuperate rapidly upon reaching the sea, having then access to their customary food, and, if escaping marine carnivora and surviving until the following spring, they renew their arduous voyage, stronger and larger fish, once more to strenuously strive and suffer, but not probably again to return. For the mass of our migratory fish may be likened to some of our familiar wayside plants, that devote their vital energies to the fructification of their seed: with its ripening they wither, with its complete formation they die.

Of the voided eggs, but a very small fraction develop, many are unfertilized, many are devoured by various depredators, many perish by changes in temperature, by floods, or by disturbances of the place of deposit. Of the scanty remnant that become fry, there again results a trifling fraction that mature; many fall victims to innumerable enemies, to lack of sustenance, and to other fatalities. Surviving all these, the young shad in a few months descends the river; then, quitting the fresh water that has nurtured and sustained it, launches boldly out for its distant and unknown home in the obscurity of the great salt sea. Still in its new and strange element does it run the gantlet of danger and death, but instinct guides it to its ancestral abode, whence two or three years later it emerges one of a host of adult fish burdened with a sense of unaccomplished parentage.

Leaving their home in the far deep, the shad, in beginning their annual pilgrimage, rise to the surface and then direct their course landward, the earliest migrants being those in which the propagative function is most advanced. Pursuing their way over the comparative shallows that widely fringe our continent, and joined by other communities bent upon the same devoted errand, they gather in our estuaries and about the mouths of our rivers, and there they linger until the effluent waters are warmer than those of the sea. With the manifestation of this sign the waiting multitude, freighted with a dawning generation that engages their overmastering solicitude, form into rank and column, and with a common impulse set out to conclude their mission of selfimmolation and sacrifice for the maintenance of their race.

  1. The chilling of the water, occasioning the retreat of the fish, may be the result of a lowering of the aërial temperature, or of the sudden irruption into the main stream of the ice-bound waters of an upper tributary. In the Hudson shad have been known to retreat fifty and even sixty miles.