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Connecticut River Shad — Revivifying a Fishery

Connecticut River Shad – for thousands of springs, people have hauled these silvery swimmers out of the river to bake, broil, saute, salt or pickle in brine. The annual shad run is one of Connecticut’s great local food harvesting events. Ironically, just as the locavore food movement is sweeping the country, our home-grown shad fishery is on the brink of oblivion. Once, hundreds of shadmen spent cold, wet April and May nights on the Connecticut, pulling up the tasty fish by the thousands. Today only a half dozen men carry on this age-old fishing tradition, and they are beginning to age out. Only a few seafood emporiums and restaurants offer shad to a shrinking customer base.

The Algonquian name for shad translates roughly into “inside out porcupines.” An experienced shad boner must navigate around 1200 or so tiny bones in order to extricate the firm fleshed filets that connoisseurs so prize. Unfortunately, boning shad is also quickly becoming a lost art. Many of the women who are experts are well north of 60. Shad fishing was usually gendered work. Men tugged the nets and gutted the catch. Women did the fine fileting work. Today, females can sometimes be found as crew on boats and men often wield the ultra-sharp edged boning knife.

Realizing that we were in danger of losing one of our oldest and proudest maritime traditions, I began an ethnography project to explore the lifestyle, technologies and mindset of the last few commercial shad netters. I also began to do some curriculum development consulting for the Connecticut River Academy (CRA), a magnet high school dedicated to the river in East Hartford.

It occurred to me that it just might be possible to preserve the skills and knowledge of the shad fishery by connecting high school faculty and students with fishermen.

This idea will come to fruition in April 2016 when Dan Russell, long time Connecticut River shad fisherman will take CRA students and teachers out on the river for several nights to teach them how to net the prized fish. Russell has generously donated nets and gear to the school, and has unstintingly shared his time and expertise to get this project off the ground and on to the river. He sees it as an opportunity to provide a future for a way of life he has followed for decades. Russell is optimistic that one or more students will take up commercial shad fishing on the Connecticut.

The Connecticut River Academy is eager for this chance to create a unique educational endeavor. Assistant Principal J.T. Foster, says, “This is a great opportunity to help sustain the Connecticut River shad fishery. It gives our scholars hands-on education, that will become a new passion and possible vocation that connects to the environment in exciting new ways. Award winning social studies teacher, Tony Roy is also enthusiastic. He feels that, “The possibilities for this are endless…Shad fishing will benefit our student’s educational opportunities and enrichment, and also be a sustainable, place-based program that will set us apart from other high schools.”

Students will process the fish into filets. The leftovers will be composted and made available to organic farms in the area. The filets will be distributed to local food banks, senior facilities and soup kitchens. There are also plans to hold a community planked-shad bake, like the annual event held in Essex. Hopefully, these efforts will reignite a demand for this Nutmeg State delicacy so that shad fishers of the future will find a market for their delectable catch.

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