One of the highlights of spring in the Hudson River Valley is the annual shad festival held in Kingston. Hundreds of people gather to celebrate and feast on a fish that has been one of the regions dietary staples since Native American times.
This years shad festival was different in one major, disheartening respect: there was no shad. The species numbers have dropped so precipitously in the Hudson River that the state severely restricted commercial fishing this spring, meaning many consumers and Kingstons festival-goers didnt get their yearly fill of the fishes delicately flavored flesh and piquant shad roe.
NOAA via Wikimedia Commons
Sadly, a new report indicates shad arent the only Hudson River fish in dire straits. In fact, its just one of 10 species that have declined since the 1970s. (The others are alewife, blueback herring, tomcod, bay anchovy, rainbow smelt, hogchoker, white catfish, weakfish and white perch.) If these results are representative of conditions on other coastal rivers, which seems likely, it means big trouble for ocean fisheries, already severely depleted because of over-fishing. The Hudson alone is a major spawning ground and nursery for Atlantic fish.
The findings of the study, which was commissioned by Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to protecting the Hudsons health, came as a bit of a shock to local environmentalists because the rivers water quality has never been better. It suggests a variety of causes for the downturn, including an increase in invasive zebra mussels, which wreak havoc on fish habitats, and five waterfront power plants that suck in millions of gallons of river water each day to cool their equipment, in the process destroying countless fish and eggs. Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson, the group I head, have been working for 30 years to force these utilities to comply with the Clean Water Act, which requires them to use the best technology available. Some new processes require 97% less water.
The report also points to another culprit global warming. Since the 1960s the river temperature at Poughkeepsie, 80 miles north of New York City, has risen 3.6 degrees. That might not seem like much, but it has a big impact on fish because it decreases dissolved oxygen in the water, upon which they depend. Less dissolved oxygen, fewer fish its that simple. Whos responsible for combating global warming? Each and every one of us.
In the sole surviving journal from the 1609 voyage of the Half Moon, the first ship to explore the Hudson River, first mate Robert Juet marveled that The river is full of fish. As the nation gears up to celebrate the 400th anniversary of this epic event that led to the founding of Manhattan and the colonization of much of the New World, we should do all in our power to save these threatened fish species. They are an equally vital part of this lands rich history.
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