Edible Traditions: Shad in the Charles River

by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely


To those living in a coastal river watershed, the phenomenon of the shad run heralded spring. American shad, known botanically as Alosa sapidissima of the Clupeidae family, is a North American species of herring.The fish used to be abundant in larger coastal rivers of the East Coast. Each spring the adult fish return from the ocean to spawn in the fresh water they left three or four years earlier as a baby shad fry, or larvae, like salmon.

Somehow, not fully understood by fish biologists, the imprinted fish can sense by smell and water currents the place where its began life. Such species are anadromous (a-NA-druh-mus), meaning that they begin life in fresh water, live most of their lifespan in saltwater, and then return to their natal river to spawn, thus completing and continuing the life cycle.

For Native Americans all along the Atlantic from northern Florida to southern New Brunswick, the return of the shad as the weather warmed was a jubilant event of the seasonal year. Rivers teemed as the silvery fish—deep-bodied and well-fed, the females heavy with eggs—rushed their way upstream. At the end of winter the colonists learned from the Indians to eat them fresh, or pickled and smoked to keep through the year.

Shad were so plentiful that they were fed to the hogs or used as fertilizer, which may by why some early settlers came to see them as a low-status food. There is an account of a family in South Hadley who, surprised by a neighbor’s mealtime visit, quickly hid the platter of shad under the table. Shad fed troops during the Revolutionary War, but the spring run’s having saved the famished soldiers at Valley Forge in the bitter winter of 1777–78 is an unsubstantiated story, however often-repeated, according to JohnMcPhee. (His book The Founding Fish offers a full and fascinating account of the shad’s importance in the early years of this country.)

Starting in the late 18th century, dams and locks were built on major rivers, which blocked the shad’s return to their natal habitat for spawning as far as 500 miles upstream. Also, with a fast-growing human population, the effects of industrialization, pollution and overfishing took a steep toll. In Massachusetts, the Charles, Connecticut, Merrimack and Neponset Rivers, as well as some smaller ones, saw a sharp drop in the numbers of shad and other fish—among them alewife and related herring, Atlantic salmon, striped bass and rainbow smelt.

People began to notice the disappearance of these fish in the Northeast, even though they were successfully introduced to the Pacific Northwest in the later 19th century. Only slowly were techniques such as fish ladders and lifts effective on a few rivers in New England to enable migratory species to pass. Legislation played a crucial role, with the legal responsibility falling on the utility companies that owned the dams.

The Connecticut River, for example, where an estimated 6 million shad once ran each spring, had some success. In easternMassachusetts, the Charles River has always been central to the region’s geography and character. It is difficult to estimate how many shad used to run on the Charles, but in 1634 William Wood observed 200,000 shad harvested in each of two consecutive flood tides in Watertown. Today the incidence of shad is anecdotal—“a few here and there,” says Kristen Ferry. They are an extirpated population, meaning not yet extinct in the Charles but too few to reproduce in sustainable numbers.

“The shad population is so depressed,” she explains, “that it is not in the collective memory.”

Ferry is a fish biologist who has been at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries since 2001. For the last four years, funded by the HubLineMitigation, she has been collaborating with the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service on a major project to restore shad to the Charles. She and JoeMcKeon reached an agreement to cooperate on this effort; he, as Central New England Anadromous Fish Coordinator, represents the federal arm and she the state arm of the handshake. They are hoping to establish a sustainable population of 30,000 shad.

“We want to create a local shad sport fishery in the Charles” where people can watch the spring shad run, Ferry says. “It’s the sign of a clean river.”

Fish biologists have been working on shad restoration on rivers up and down the coast since the 1980s. “New ideas crop up,” she says, “but mostly it’s trial and error.” Their project started by stocking the Charles with eggs, but this was not successful. Then they tried transferring adult shad, but that didn’t work very well either, at least not sustainably. Stocking with fry, however, looked promising, and success on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania encouraged them, where they used shad larvae 8 to 12 days old—fry “with two big eyes,” she describes them.

In Ferry’s project, the mature male and female brood stock come from the Essex Dam, originally built on the Merrimack River at Lawrence in 1847. In the evening when shad are active in the low light at the big fish lift, which is essentially a water elevator, they take the fish out by net, one by one, and put them into a large tank. Shad are extremely sensitive, so they handle each fish once only, injecting both males and females with a hormone to get them “in the mood,” as she puts it, for spawning. Every step of timing and temperature is critical. On the third or fourth day, 75 to 100 fish at a time may spawn in the huge tanks, where the water is warmed and recirculated. They injected 619 fish in all last year: the work is labor intensive.

One female shad produces approximately 200,000 eggs in her pair of ovaries. At the National Fish Hatchery in Nashua, New Hampshire, Claudia Ostaudelafont with Kyle Flanery (hatchery manager) and Larry Lofton, tend the fertilized eggs. They are kept in cylindrical tanks holding 2,000 each, which she counts carefully. These tiny larvae are immersed in an oxytetracycline bath which colors their ear bone, called an otolith. This minute bone, small even in an adult shad, has rings which mark its accrued years, as do fish scales, like rings on a tree. By means of the fluorescent dye, fish biologists can tell years later the exact age of a shad and whether it is wild or from the hatchery, to track shad populations along the Atlantic coast.

In June or July, Ostaudelafont and her colleagues carefully release these shad fry, 8 to 12 days old, through large tubes into the Charles at the Woerd Avenue boat launch inWaltham. The juvenile fish “hang out” in the river, mostly between there and the Moody Street Bridge, until October or November, when they swim into the ocean and remain at sea for three or four years before returning to spawn. All along and at every stage, they are part of the food chain, eating and being eaten, so that 1 percent is considered a very good survival rate from all those eggs.The lifespan of a shad now is about 8 years. In warmer waters farther south than Virginia, shad return only once to spawn, after which the spent fish dies. In the colder water of New England, a shad may return from the ocean more than once.

Ferry’s stocking program began in 2006, when they released 1.8 million fry into the Charles so the first adult shad might return this spring. They stocked again in 2007 and 2008. Each year there have been setbacks and surprises as they learn by trial and error. In May 2006 the flood in Lawrence nearly breached the Essex Dam and caused massive damage. One year, they gave them the hormones slightly too early, when the females were still “green” and released their eggs before they were viable.This year they tried without the hormones, but that failed.

Ferry and all her colleagues are hopeful for the return of the 2006 shad release. Come May, when the water reaches the right temperature, they will check for shad at the Watertown Dam and, taking a few from a random sample, carefully look for that glowing ear bone to tell them that this is one of their own. From their sample they will estimate the number of nursery shad and the success of their restoration efforts.

Another piece of the project is the Charles River Watershed Association, which maintains fishways and monitors water quality before and after fry releases. Monitoring helps to “guide the releases and have data on file for the future. It’s ongoing,” says Julie DyerWood, a watershed scientist with the CRWA. With volunteers who have been collecting water samples at a precise time and place once a month since 1995 along the entire river from Charlestown to Milford, they have built a comprehensive baseline.

The CRWA has also been studying pollution of the river from impervious land areas—that is, surface runoff from manicured lawns, shallow root zones, and parking lots, where phosphorus is a big problem. The polluted and overheated water runs off into sewer pipes directly to the Charles, instead of being treated onsite with tree canopies, rain gardens and such to filter the water naturally. These low-impact devices can save rainwater and keep it from polluting the river.We’re trying to raise public awareness about “putting runoff water into the ground in a healthy way,”Wood says.

Of the 20 dams on the entire Charles River, the shad can get over six of them by means of fishways to the Metropolitan Circular Dam in Newton. Some are old mill dams, but other dams are essential to the modern city for flood control. Massachusetts law stipulates that fish be given passage along the river. “When we have evidence of fish migration to the base of the Circular Dam, we’ll pursue fish passage at that point, jointly with the DCR,” Ferry says. “It’s a balance,” she adds, to find “where’s a good location for the fish to grow and survive.”

The American shad today usually weighs up to 6 or 8 pounds (for male and female respectively), although there are some 10- or 12-pounders. Their length is typically 20 to 24 inches, occasionally as long as 30. In the past shad tended to be larger. Their coloring is silver with a blue or greenish cast on their back, white on the belly. The lateral line of five or so spots behind the gill cover distinguishes it from other herrings in its habitat, also its larger mouth and deep body shape.

The large pair of shad roe sacs in the female shad at spawning is prized for its excellence in eating.The flesh, which cooks white, has a high fat content like all herring, but the flavor is distinctively sweet and delicate. Shad’s fat melts in cooking and bastes the flesh; it does not taste “oily.” The many small bones are a nuisance, but today shad is sold filleted. Fishermen with a little patience can do this themselves, excising the line of “floating rib” bones on either side of the backbone on both fillets. I’ve done it. Boned shad is far preferable to the old recipes for cooking the fish at a very low temperature for many hours to dissolve the bones.

The Algonquins had many evocative names and stories concerning the shad. In a legend of the Micmacs, a tribe that lived in Canada along the southern shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the shad was originally a porcupine dissatisfied with its lot. When it appealed to Manitou to transform it into another creature, the Great Spirit grabbed the prickly animal, turned it inside out, and flung it back into the river to begin life again as a shad.

Where I grew up, in southeastern Pennsylvania near the Susquehanna, shad was definitely in “the collective memory,” as Kristen Ferry aptly put it. Shad’s arrival every spring was cause for celebration, even if encountered only on menus. My father, like his own father, would take the whole family to the mouth of the Susquehanna to watch the fishermen hauling and cleaning their silvery catch right there by the water, removing the dark red roes with care. He would choose a couple of fat fish for us to grill on an open fireplace near the shore. The sharp spring air and smoky fire, the scorched skin and sweet succulent flesh, all ensured that this was indeed Alosa sapidissima—“shad most delicious.”

Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely edited The Culinary Times, newsletter of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. Her dictionary, The Chef ’s Companion (JohnWiley & Sons), is in its third edition, marking changes in the edible landscape. Beth passed away in March 2017.