A Hudson River Fisherman Explains What's Happening to Shad and Herring
From 2000 through 2004, the number of shad counted on the Connecticut were 229,000, 281,000, 377,000, 289,000, and 193,000; the number of blueback herring were 10,600, 10,600, 2,000, 1,400, and 156.
I posed the question to John Mylod, a commercial fisherman from Poughkeepsie, on the Hudson. I used to call John when I was a reporter and he was both a fisherman and the head of the Clearwater environmental group. I e-mailed him the other day because I knew I'd get a straight and complete answer.
His nut-graf, as they say in the newspaper business:
... there is no simple answer to your question of what is happening to shad and herring in the Hudson. Temperature, stripers, large and continuing fish kills at power plants, low recruitment due to contamination or other environmental factors, all contribute. ,,, Coastwise, the declines are, perhaps, also due to some of the same factors in the other estuaries where bass are back and power plants are situated in the wrong places for anadromous fishery runs.
Here's his whole response:
Yes, both runs [ed. -- that is, shad and blueback herring] have been down this year in the Hudson River and elsewhere. Commercial markets in NYC and New Jersey were so desperate for fish that they were even calling me. Part of that is due to the run and part to the fact that the downriver fishermen have stopped fishing for shad for the most part due to the excessive numbers of striped bass. (Of course, there are only a few these days anyway.)
The fact that the "intercept" shad fishery -- coastal fishers targeting shad offshore -- was closed this year, the first year of the new ban, did not have a significant, positive impact on the Hudson River run. [ed. -- For years ocean-going vessels would catch shad in late winter as they gathered off the mouths of east coast rivers, "intercepting" the fish before they could spawn; regulators put an end to the practice this year.]
Although the run began for me in the mid-Hudson reach of the river at about the same point has for the last several years, about April 8, it showed some promise, with a larger number of bucks entering the system than in the recent past, but as the roe began to even out the catch, the numbers of both fish began to drop away. To meet orders I was forced to fish up river north of Hudson where there were fewer striped bass and a greater chance of finding enough roe to satisfy my local markets.
The promise of the slug of bucks in the early season gave way to a drop in abundance within a fairly short span of about two to three weeks. Historically, say the 1970s, we caught a great deal of shad and the usual rule of thumb was that an early run of bucks would eventually even out in the catch with roe and then drop precipitously so that the haul back was predominately roe.
The striped bass coastal management plan was instigated and, over the years, the Hudson River stocks rebounded to record levels so that now it is difficult to fish for shad. We have switched our methods of fishing to try and avoid stripers, but this counterproductive approach means less Shad, too. We can'; put out enough net to catch meaningful numbers of shad in the Mid-Hudson reach because of the threat of striped bass. So, now we, my shad partner and I in the M/T Net Co., fish from the top of the river down twenty feet and only fish about 600 to 900 feet of net whereas in the past we would fish at least twelve to fifteen hundred feet of net and we were also down deep so that the top of our net was twenty feet below the surface.
In addition to causing a reduction in shad fishing effort, striped bass abundance in the Hudson is also leading to an increase in mortality of eggs, larval stages, and young of the year shad and herring. Stripers also hammer early growth stages of blue crab as well. (Through anecdotal information I have learned that a fair to large percentage of stripers processed by DEC for PCB analysis have quarter- and half dollar-size blue crab in their stomachs. Not good news for the few of us who also fish commercially for blue crab.)
The runs of alewives and blueback herring have been slow and, like low shad abundance, may have been negatively effected by the cold spring and slow rise in water temperature. The Hudson at Poughkeepsie did not reach 60 F until late May.
Of course, there is no simple answer to your question of what is happening to shad and herring in the Hudson. Temperature, stripers, large and continuing fish kills at power plants, low recruitment due to contamination or other environmental factors, all contribute. And this has been happening for a number of years so that the trend is to see a decline in the numbers across the board. Coastwise, the declines are, perhaps, also due to some of the same factors in the other estuaries where bass are back and power plants are situated in the wrong places for anadromous fishery runs.
There has also been a decline in effort on the river due to the fact that there are few people fishing commercially for shad. Most of the fishers in the Tappan Zee and Haverstraw Bay are discouraged by the abundance of bass and the frustration of putting out a few hundred feet of net only to have it fill up with stripers. A couple have turned to herring for bait to meet the sport fishing market, but with the decline upriver, too, due to age and a fatal auto accident, the "traditional" shad fishery on the Hudson isn't what it used to be.
Hope this helps a little. There is a DEC Hudson River Estuary Management Advisory Committee meeting here in Poughkeepsie on June 15 at the Pirate Canoe Club where fishery and other Department managers will also meet with the Committee and present reports and, perhaps, address some of the questions you are posing.
My thanks to John Mylod for the complete account.