Thursday, April 21, 2016


Right now, striped bass are headed up New York’s Hudson River, preparing to spawn.  Folks who don’t fish for stripers are often surprised.  They think of the Hudson as something dead, and not the vitally important river that it was, is and always should be.

In truth, the Hudson’s bad reputation is overdone, and also very far out of date.  Not very long ago, as time is measured by species and rivers, the Hudson was heading toward a tragic demise.  Sewage dumped into the river, along with varied industrial wastes, led to hypoxic “dead zones” where fish could hardly survive, much less reproduce.

Up through the 1970s, as striped bass populations declined all along the coast, manufacturers such as General Electric allowed polychlorinated biphenyls—usually just called “PCBs”—to leak into the river from factories building transformers and other electrical parts.  The chemicals spread through the food chain, accumulating in the larger predators.

Things got so bad that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation shut down the commercial bass fishery not only on the river but, for a while, in all of the State of New York, in order to prevent people from consuming PCB-tainted bass.  Over the years, the PCB-producing factories were all shut down, and a massive remediation project has removed PCB-laden silt from the river.  The commercial striped bass fishery in some New York waters reopened long ago.

“Women under 50 years of age and children under 15 should not eat any fish from the Hudson River downstream of the Corinth Dam.”
Everyone else is warned not to eat fish from a long section of river running from above Albany well down toward the ocean due to remaining PCB contamination, and to eat fish from the lower reaches of the river just one time each month.

Warnings even apply out past the river’s mouth, although in New York’s salt waters, younger women and children may safely consume one meal of striped bass each month, while all other persons are advised to limit their monthly intake to just fourer servings.

Hudson River striped bass may travel as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as North Carolina.  Yet however far they may travel over the course of the year, the conditions that they face in just a short length of river will determine the success of their spawn and the fitness of their flesh as food.

And as the striped bass swim back to the Hudson, they do not travel alone.

American shad and river herring (the latter a term that encompasses both alewives and blueback herring) are heading upriver also, seeking out their spawning grounds.

At one time, to steal a phrase from author John Waldman, rivers all along the Atlantic coast, including the Hudson, “ran silver” with hordes of fish.  But that, sadly, is a thing of the past.

The Hudson’s run of big shad—some of the largest and oldest shad on the coast, which returned to the river multiple times—has collapsed.  A fish that once provided cheap protein for the masses of immigrants that came to Manhattan, and prized, costly roe for New York’s moneyed elite, now is so scarce that both the commercial and recreational fisheries have been closed.

The shad were hurt in the Hudson by dead zones and dredging that degraded their spawning grounds, and by long-term overfishing as well.  Shad runs on other rivers faced similar problems; in addition, many were blocked by impassible dams.  And those were only the problems that faced shad during their spawning runs; during the rest of the year, which shad spend in the ocean, large numbers of them were killed as bycatch by fishermen targeting mackerel and Atlantic herring.

River herring suffered the same fate as shad.  Although they once ran up just about every creek and river that flowed into the sea, and thus had far more potential spawning grounds, dams in the rivers and bycatch in the sea caused their numbers to fall sharply as well.

Yet the problems of striped bass, river herring and shad are not as great as those faced by salmon, which spend most of their lives out at sea, vulnerable to threats from many sources, and reproduce in rivers with myriad problems.

On the U.S. East Coast, Atlantic salmon are all but gone.  

They travel far during their time in the ocean, to waters off Greenland, where local netters decimate their numbers; even those that survive are threatened by a warming northern ocean that impacts their ability to feed.  When they return to their natal streams, they face the same problems that frustrate too many other anadromous species; dams block upstream passage, and what spawning habitat remains accessible is vulnerable to pollution and other forms of degradation.

In the United States, the Atlantic salmon’s range has already shrunk from rivers throughout New England to just a few streams in Maine.  It has been listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act.  The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, working in conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries Service, is drafting a plan to rebuild the stock to sustainable levels, but under the best circumstances, the process will take around 75 years.

Pacific salmon pose a more intricate puzzle.  They form a complex web of not only individual species, but unique salmon “runs” within the same species that differ somewhat from river to river, and have their own management needs.  Some individual runs are “endangered”.  Others are completely healthy, at least at this time.

The threats that the Pacific salmon face are varied, ranging from a lack of water, caused by both drought and the demands of irrigation in California to pollution discharged from hard-rock mines, including mines located upriver in Canada, impacting pristine Alaskan streams.  Dams, increasing water temperatures, siltation and competition from hatchery fish all place additional burdens on native salmon populations.

The bottom line is that anadromous fish—those that spawn in the rivers but live in the sea—are facing serious threats wherever they are found.  Countering those threats, in order to conserve the healthy stocks and rebuild those that have declined, is going to take a new approach to the management process.

It’s not just about regulations adopted by NMFS, pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, that protect fish at sea, nor is it about the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates harvest of shad, river herring and striped bass when in state waters.  State regulation of in-river fisheries isn’t enough.

To adequately protect anadromous fish stocks, everyone must step out of their silos, which protect certain fish in certain pieces of water, and work hand-in-hand to adopt a comprehensive, integrated management approach that reaches out from the heads of natal rivers into the heart of the sea, and assures that wherever the fish may wander through the course of their lives, they will be given sufficient protection.

It will not be easy to get there.  No law provides for such comprehensive management today (although, in dire circumstances only, the Endangered Species Act comes somewhat close), and adopting an integrated approach will step on many jurisdictional toes.  Stakeholders will undoubtedly be wary of any new management layer, while bureaucrats will undoubtedly object when “outsiders” invade what they consider their own personal fiefs.    

Yet, if runs of anadromous fish are to thrive, there is no viable alternative.

For so long as one dam on a river can keep salmon from spawning after long years at sea, and one mid-water trawl in the ocean can destroy all of the alewives that a river produced in a year, such fishes’ future must remain insecure.

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