Discouraging Report On Hudson Shad Angers Angler-Environmentalist – Patch


OSSINING, NY — A new report on the Hudson River American shad concludes that centuries of overfishing and policy decisions have so depleted the population of an economically and ecologically important migratory fish species — which once supported a robust fishing industry — that its recovery isn’t assured, and could take decades even with strong conservation efforts.

In its Recovery Plan for Hudson River American Shad, the state Department of Environmental Conservation provided a roadmap, outlining steps to mitigate the numerous challenges facing the iconic species.

“By implementing the strategies outlined in this plan, DEC will work to ensure a sustainable future for American shad,” conservation department Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a statement when the report was released.

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But just how pessimistic the researchers are may be inferred from the quote with which they began the report:

When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books … Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.
Winston Churchill, 1935

“It’s maddening and saddening at the same time,” George Jackman, senior habitat restoration manager at Riverkeeper, told Patch.

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New York once had one of the most robust stocks of American shad on the entire East Coast, he said.

“The Hudson River is a factory — or was — it was a factory teeming with life beyond imagining,” Jackman said. “We know because everyone who came here described it as brimming with life in every shape and fashion. An early European wrote they could ‘walk dry-shod on the backs of fish’ and that birds flocked across the sky for minutes at a time. An embellishment? Maybe a little bit — but the passenger pigeon was here then.

“100 years ago Martha, the last remaining passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. When she died, millions of years of evolutionary history died with her. We don’t want to see that happen with the shad.”

Conservation is a second career for Jackman, a retired New York City police officer. He’s been an angler all his life, and his love of fishing informs his work. He was in graduate school in 2010 when New York banned recreational fishing for shad, and he wrote to then-Gov. David Paterson.

“There was commercial shad fishing, but recreational fishing was prohibited,” he said. “I said, ‘that’s not acceptable. Why should you kill fish en masse if I can’t even catch one on a rod?'”

Riverkeeper‘s history is tied to fishing. In 1966, fishermen disgusted by the pollution killing the river founded the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association. Nowadays, as the organization says on its website, “the Hudson’s recovery is still fragile, still incomplete. Some fish species have not recovered, and many remain too toxic to eat; pollution levels spike with every rainfall. Mammoth cuts in government spending threaten to reverse a half-century of water quality gains, and we face the challenges of antiquated power plants, climate change, and emerging, harmful pollutants.

Riverkeeper’s vision is of a Hudson teeming with life, with engaged communities boating, fishing and swimming throughout its watershed.”

The Hudson River shad is a magnificent fish, Jackman told Patch.

“They’re just so well created in evolutionary standards. Athletic champions — there was a time they swam from the Atlantic to Cooperstownalmost 1,200 miles one way, the longest migration on the East Coast.”

But then humans dammed the Hudson just above the fall line 100 years ago to improve commercial navigation on the river and the canal system. That effectively cut the shad off from their primary spawning ground.

“We lost a lot of habitat because of the Troy dam. Right there, we cut the original population in half,” Jackman said.

Still, overfishing has been the biggest culprit. And for two centuries, the response has been to cut back — for a while — until as the 21s century got underway, it just didn’t work anymore.

“Anecdotal accounts of the once-robust Hudson River shad fisheries suggest that by the mid- to late-1800s, intense harvesting pressure led the stock nearly to collapse, initiating legislative action by New York State in 1861,” the researchers wrote. “Over the next 150 years, the Hudson River shad stock recovered and then went through a steep decline three more times. Each time, the peak of recovery was lower than the last recovery.”

In addition to the overfishing and the dams, three other main factors have exacerbated the most recent Hudson River shad stock decline: invasive species preying on juvenile shad, fish-trapping water-cooling intakes of industrial facilities such as the Indian Point nuclear power plants, and habitat damage and destruction from climate change-induced extreme weather events.

Plus, there’s the problem with adult shad being collateral damage in the massive commercial fishing industry in the Atlantic Ocean.

Though shad fishing has been prohibited since 2010, the population has not recovered, the report said.

The state’s short-term objective is to reopen a bit of recreational catch-and-release fishery while supporting the long-term recovery objective of returning the stock to 1940s levels. However, the researchers warned that conservative management and considerable patience would be needed and that to return the Hudson River shad stock to levels with enough resilience for commercial and recreational harvest will take years — or decades.

“We’re paying off what I call extinction debt,” Jackman said. “It’s like losing your wealth — it doesn’t happen overnight, even if you’re overleveraged. It takes time for the full impact.”


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