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Fighting to Bring Back a Once Abundant—and Delicious—American Fish

Shad. These days, this seasonal delicacy doesn’t have the come-hither appeal of the first ramps or wild salmon, but it’s a great American treasure nonetheless.

You probably have no idea what I’m talking about, but the story of shad shows just how devastating rampant fishing can be on a species and, one hopes, how successful conservation efforts can be.

For a truly deep dive into the subject, you’ll want to read John McPhee’s wondrous The Founding Fish, but I can give you the basics. The American shad (Alosa sapidissima) is the largest member of the herring family, with adults typically reaching 4 to 8 pounds. It’s an anadromous fish—that is, it spends most of its life in the ocean but spawns in large freshwater rivers.

Agile, alert, strong, and hard-fighting, the shad is an excellent gamefish, and one of the clearest descriptions of its life cycle is from Anglers for Conservation. In short, like salmon, adult shad return to the river where they were born to spawn. Because spawning runs are triggered by warming water temperatures, they roll up the East Coast. In Georgia, for instance, shad season is Jan. 1 to March 31, and it’s correspondingly later in the Carolinas, the Chesapeake, and northern rivers from Delaware to Canada.

Shad has been prized since pre-Colonial times. Native Americans introduced European settlers to the extraordinarily abundant shad populations during spring shad runs, and dried shad has been credited with saving George Washington’s troops from starvation at Valley Forge, along the Schuylkill River. By the early 19th century, shad, which was harvested by the ton, was one of the most commercially valuable fish on the Atlantic Seaboard.

Well, you can predict what happened next.

Related: Jane Says: Really Expensive Wild Salmon Is Really Worth It

Shad stocks started spiraling downward by the late 1800s as a result of excessive harvesting, pollution, and loss of spawning grounds, primarily from dam construction. In the Chesapeake alone, an annual haul of 17.5 million pounds at the turn of the last century dwindled to less than 2 million pounds by the 1970s, according to the Chesapeake Bay Field Office.

Up in my neck of the woods, on the Hudson, the news in recent years has been particularly dismal. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation closed the commercial and recreational shad fisheries in 2010, and the shad aren’t expected to recover to sustainable levels until 2050. According to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, factors include the threat posed by zebra mussels and other invasive species, sea level rise, and, yep, global warming, which could disrupt the shad’s life cycle and food supply.

The other day, I spoke with New York City chef-restaurateur and eat-local pioneer Peter Hoffman, whose deep, abiding interest in the natural world was kindled as a teenager working the spring shad season on the Hudson. (He wrote a very good account of those days for Edible Manhattan in 2009.) “Stocks have been in decline for quite some time,” he said. Aside from other issues—pollution, dams, and so forth—one major factor “is that the fish get mixed up in the offshore trawling nets for mackerel and squid, so there’s no opportunity for them to mature.”

Shad, like river herring, are forage fish, meaning they feed mostly on plankton and, in turn, are an important food source for predators such as larger fish, marine mammals, and sea birds.

In 2014, the Herring Alliance reported that the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted to sharply reduce the amount of river herring and shad that can be killed by the industrial trawl vessels targeting Atlantic mackerel, pointing out an inconvenient truth. “While millions of taxpayer dollars are going to improve fish habitat in streams, scientists estimate that some 3.8 million river herring are killed at sea as bycatch each year and that this is likely undermining the effort to recover these species.” The subject was in the news again earlier this year, as the Herring Alliance’s partner Earthjustice (“Because the Earth Needs a Good Lawyer”) successfully litigated and won new protections for shad and river herring.

Down South, the shad situation is being closely monitored by good folks like Bryant Bowen, a fisheries biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “We’ve had a pretty good shad run this year in the Savannah and Altamaha Rivers—it has a lot to do with the water flows, which have been good in the southeast the last four to five years.” Although the number of shad gill-netters continues to drop, Bowen and his colleagues are getting better data from them, stemming from stricter reporting requirements, so they have a better idea of how much pressure is on the estimated population, he added. That of the Altamaha looked to be 250,000 to 350,000 this year.

Bowen’s grandmother, who worked in a cotton mill, would get paid in shad roe. “Kids today in middle and south Georgia, most of ’em have never had shad eggs,” he said, referring to eggs scrambled with the roe—delicious eating that both he and I grew up with.

In the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, shad roe is most often teamed with bacon, wrote John Martin Taylor in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking—originally published in 1992 and an instant classic. “All roe is easier to handle if it is made firm by either chilling or by simmering it for a few minutes in milk or water. To cook the roe, bacon is rendered in a skillet, then removed and drained. The firm roe is added to the hot bacon grease, flat side down, and cooked slowly until golden brown, then turned once to brown the other side briefly. The roe is then served with the reserved bacon, lemon wedges, and parsley.” Just spoon some creamy grits alongside, and you have one of the classic meals of the American South.

The fish itself has sweet white meat with a high oil content, but it is most famous—or, more accurately, infamous—for its complicated skeletal structure, which includes free-floating L-shaped bones, making it fiendishly difficult to fillet. Try it yourself and you’ll be left with a piece of fish that looks like you backed a car over it. The job is best left to expert fishmongers like those at Russo’s Seafood, in Savannah, who clean the catch that shadders bring to the back door every spring.

While conservationists on the Eastern Seaboard are struggling to save their shad runs, things are different on the Pacific Coast. According to the Seattle-based Shad Foundation, which studies 30-plus shad species around the world, the American shad was introduced in the Sacramento and Columbia Rivers more than a century ago and is flourishing.

They are now fairly widespread, confirmed Jon Rowley, my go-to fish expert, who is also in Seattle. “The run in the Columbia peaks in June,” he said. “People aren’t used to it here, and you can probably count the people who know how to fillet it on the fingers of one hand, so you don’t see the fish in the markets much—the roe somewhat more. The quality is variable.”

Rowley wondered if I’d ever been to the Wakefield Shad Planking in Virginia, where the shad is cooked slowly on planks next to a bed of coals for six to seven hours, a time-honored technique which dissolves the bones. He’d been, years ago, and hasn’t forgotten it. “The Ruritan Club volunteers and invited guests enjoy a shad roe breakfast in the morning. I was lucky enough to get an invite,” he added. “If you are in politics in Virginia, or planning to be, you attend the shad planking. Probably the most important date on a Virginia politician’s calendar.”

The 68th Wakefield Shad Planking is coming up on April 22, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who has mixed feelings about it. I indulged once already this year, in Savannah, and that’s enough—although lately I’ve found myself remembering the celebratory shad suppers Peter Hoffman used to give.

He hasn’t had shad on his spring menu for some years now, but understands the allure. “People crave shad because they need to connect to the past,” he wrote in 2009, as well as “to the cycle of the seasons.”

“Food unique to a certain time and place still calls out to us with a power and urgency that ubiquitous dishes found on menus in all 50 states never can,” he continued. “Uneaten, they become forgotten, no longer a cultural resource but just one more statistic belonging to scientists who map the narrowing biodiversity. Yet when we sit down to a meal, share the lore and traditions of our most indigenous fish, we help keep the necessity of the economy alive. But I don’t want to participate in their demise. With luck and some stringent management, I’ll be able to share a pair of roe with my grandchildren.” Hope springs eternal.