By Patrick Cooney
The disconnect of East and West was no longer so vast with the driving of the Golden Spike on the United States Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869. Seth Green, an entrepreneur who is often credited with the invention of the fish reel, saw a golden opportunity to expand his empire with the presence of a cross continent railroad, but are we still paying the cost today of his ambitious ways?
|American shad (Photo: Cooney)|
As human populations swelled in the new world, wild stocks of fish were becoming more strained to meet the increased demand. In 1864 Seth Green developed the first fish hatchery in the Western Hemisphere raising salmon, helping to fill an increased number of hungry mouths. As he honed his techniques in Rochester, New York, he continued to add species to his aquaculture endeavors including American shad and trout. Like any true entrepreneur, he looked to expand even farther.
At the time, very little caution or care was given to introducing non-native species of fish to new water bodies, and to be honest, many government agencies are still in the business today (European brown trout are a prime example). Seth Green wanted to expand his fish empire and he concocted a plan to introduce American shad, native to the Atlantic Ocean, to the Pacific Ocean.
Mr. Green outfitted a train car with milk jugs, a popular method of small fish transportation that would continue in popularity for another 100 years, and hooked up with the Transcontinental Railroad in 1871. A total of 10,000 American shad were dumped into the Sacramento River in Northern California, the fish survived, and then successfully spread along the entire Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada.
|Salmon and shad in the counting window|
Fast forward to today…literally today. More than 200,000 American shad (direct descendants of those initial 10,000) will swim through the Bonneville Dam fish ladders on the Columbia River today (6/17/2013) in their yearly migration upriver to spawn. These numbers are highly accurate because people are paid to sit in a small underwater room and count fish as they go by a small window (see link at end of story).
These people are held to the task every year of monitoring the populations of fish that return from the sea to spawn in the Columbia River. The effort started out with counting just salmon, but starting in 1946, American shad were included in that count, with a total of 20,279. Numbers steadily rose, until a peak was hit in 2004, when more than 5 million shad passed by the window, with a 15 year average of more than 3 million.
|Shad anglers at Bonneville Dam.|
American shad fishing is a big deal when there are that many fish in one spot at one time. To be honest, it is more like combat fishing as people crowd into tight areas where fish school at the base of the Bonneville Dam. I find it impressively ironic that most of these anglers do not know who Seth Green is, yet they are using a reel that was initially invented by Seth Green to haul in a fish that is a direct descendant of one introduced by Seth Green. With American shad being so plentiful in the Columbia, there are no catch limits, further increasing the frenzy of folks who flock to the area.
|The Columbia River Gorge, shad angling boats,
and BonnevilleDam. (Photo: Cooney)
Back on the East Coast in rivers like the Roanoke on the North Carolina and Virginia border, strict harvest limits are currently in place, and scientists are working hard to estimate the run size of American shad to insure the long term viability of the population. Estimates of run sizes in the 1890s in the Roanoke River exceed 2 million American shad (similar to the total current run size in the Columbia River), whereas estimates from recent years in the Roanoke River show a population of ~10,000 American shad (estimates range from ~5,000 to ~30,000). Amazingly, one could watch the window on the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia for only an hour or two today and see what would represent the entire population from the Roanoke for the whole year.
Some interesting questions to consider with American shad:
●What impact does the increasing number of American shad in the Columbia River have on struggling salmon populations?
●Why are native populations of American shad continuing to struggle on the East Coast of the United States, while those out West that are introduced are thriving?
●What are the long term impacts of non-native fish introductions?