The indigenous people called them “inside out porcupines.” Thousands of little bones web their succulent flesh to make them difficult to clean and yummy to eat. For millennia, they have played key roles in the lives of folks in these parts. They are shad, a type of herring that swim up the Connecticut River from April to June in search of spawning space. Humans have trapped, netted, jigged, scooped and speared them out of the river since the end of the Ice Age. Not only are they tasty and nutritious, they fertilized the crops that sustained and enriched the colonists as they wrested our state away from nature.
Unfortunately, the Age of Shad is over. Each year the annual run shrinks. Fewer and fewer commercial fishermen string their smudgepot-marked nets across the Long Tidal River on chilly spring nights. The art of removing the bones, traditionally the purview of women is almost forgotten. The young’ns don’t have the patience for it.
Sad as this sounds, in our Age of Megaspills in The Gulf of Mexico, Great Barrier Reefs ground to talcum and Disappearing Bats, No More Shad is like… yawn. But Connecticut River (and sometimes Hudson River) shad were important links in the chain of socio-eco-political events that brought us to the point where governments lose credibility and the environment just loses. As Washington’s army shivered, and starved to death at Valley Forge, New York farmers made perilous passages to get wagonloads of the life-saving nutrients in dried shad to the troops. If the shad hadn’t arrived in the nick of time we might still be a British Colony. If not for shad, our system of governance that we love to hate and hate to love would be something far different. The next time you exercise your right to vote, attend a Tea Party or kvetch about Hartford, Wall Street or Washington, thank a shad.
Shad are the poster-fish for today’s economic and environmental concerns. Why are the shad disappearing? Is it government-sponsored resurgence of striped bass? The extermination of menhaden populations by purse seiner fishing nets and spotter planes? Increased salinity? Less forage? Water diversions? Bluefish? Windfarms? Let’s do a study… So far, the definitive answer eludes. The bottom line is there aren’t as many shad as there were not too long ago.
I recently went to a local Fish House and ordered shad. “Ooooh sorry, we used to have it every year, everybody loved it, lots of people used to come in and order it. Now, nobody does.” So I went down to one of the last places in Connecticut that sells shad retail, bought some fresh caught and took it back to the Fish House. Best baked shad I ever had but, ironically, just as eating local becomes a hot trend, one of our oldest local foods has fallen out of favor.
Shad’s decline is a symbol of what’s eating us today. Its demise provides important insights into government ineptitude, global climate change, rising sea levels, greed, the food chain, the economy and the obesity epidemic.
As a short term remedy for such anxieties, I suggest a trip to a Shad Shack. You can still find one by the Rocky Hill Ferry which has crossed Connecticut River shad runs since 1655. Buy some roe, if you crave culinary adventure. Or just get some nice, fresh filets to bake, broil, plank or grill to your palate’s delight. In the grand scheme of things you will be one of the last humans ever to eat Connecticut River Shad. In the short term, enjoy this healthy, delicious treat and you will help keep a 10,000 year old tradition swimming along.
Renwick Griswold is an associate professor of sociology in Hillyer College at the University of Hartford.