The April afternoon is hot–the first scorcher of the year–and I feel a sunburn rising as I stand on the dock at the Pamunkey Indian Reservation. That same heat tightening my skin has triggered some primal urge in the American shad swimming just offshore. Solar energy has warmed the water, commanded the fish to run up this river to spawn, to continue the cycle of life.
After the shad come the Pamunkey Indians with a tradition they’ve been carrying on directly for a century. But truth be told, this is what tribesmen have been doing for countless generations–forever, as far as they’re concerned. Finding renewal, meaning, sustenance from the land and water.
Pamunkey Indian Reservation waterfront
This April, as with any other, the Pamunkey are hatching shad, a fish that has suffered a population collapse in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The shad can hardly spawn on their own. They’ll try, but there just aren’t that many of them. The runs they made decades ago–millions of fish swimming to the farthest reaches of all the Bay’s feeders–are long gone. Dams, pollution and unsustainable harvests have made those days distant memories.
Now humans must intervene, atone for the sins that have brought shad to this point. That’s where the Pamunkey come in. They and a handful of other groups, the neighboring Mattaponi tribe for instance, step in to provide sanctuary for the offspring of the few fish that now run. Government agencies give grants for these conservation efforts, but those funds really just cover costs; the Pamunkey do it because this is who they are as a people, as a nation.
On about late afternoon the reservation’s quiet boat ramp starts to rouse. Tribesmen trickle down to the waterfront, their trucks towing full trailers. They back their weathered jon boats into the murky river. Five or six men show up to fish tonight, each in his own boat, each motoring off into the calm ribbon of wide water.
From its beginning near Ashland to its terminus at West Point, the Pamunkey River’s course is wild and winding. The reservation is bounded almost entirely by an oxbow. As each craft leaves the shore, the hum of the outboard dwindles to nothing, the spreading wake arcs around a bend and out of sight. Somewhere distant, unseen, each fisherman slows at a good spot, plants his gill nets in the river, forming a U shape to trap the fish swimming upstream. He’ll do this for as many nights as the shad are running.
When tribesmen pull their nets they’ll have shad–maybe just a few, maybe a dozen, maybe more if they’re lucky. And not always an even mix of roe–females–and bucks–males. The Pamunkey men don’t need much, though. Each roe will yield many thousands of usable eggs, each buck millions of sperm. The Pamunkey men gingerly swipe their pincers the length of each fish’s abdomen, force-mixing the eggs and sperm in a clean, white bucket. The fishermen can fertilize the eggs on on-board, but as often as not, they’ll take the shad back to shore where they can bring fish to life without the unsteady jostling of wind and wave, limiting the threat that scales, blood and grit will poison the mixture.
Onshore, the fish hatchery is cool and tidy, a welcome respite from the glaring sun. Inside are twelve fiberglass holding tanks with a labyrinth of PVC plumbing. Clutching the round rim of each tank are cylindrical hatching jars. An arm of the tubing reaches over to cycle water through each cylinder. This is where the fertilized eggs will incubate, but they’re not there yet.
The embryos have to swell or “water-harden” as it’s called. Each small bucket gets a few cups of clean river water. In an hour each embryo has grown from microscopic to BB in size. Only then will each fisherman’s yield be counted. They keep meticulous records.
Fertilized shad eggs water hardening
Some of the clear beads are fed into a tool with a slot cut precisely 12 inches long and wide enough for one embryo. One man counts what’s there, and looks on the Von Bayer scale for that number. 98 embryos in the slot: 39,378 per liter, according to the chart. He pours the embryos into a hatching jar, marked for liters on the side, and lets them settle. Two liters. 78,756 fertilized eggs, more or less. Not bad for a few fish.
When the embryos develop, they become fry–strong enough to swim over the lip of the hatching jar and into the larger holding tank. There they’ll stay for a few days and the men will give them a sort of signature–a harmless dye that stains their ear bone so that their birthplace, the Pamunkey Indian Reservation, will be apparent to any scientist who snags one and cares to look.
Inside the hatchery; hatching jars and holding tanks
And when each of the large holding tanks–now populated by tens of thousands of fry–is ready, workers pull the plug and gravity sweeps the tiny fish through the plumbing and into the Pamunkey River–the very same birthplace of their parents and their parents before them. The fry that manage to escape becoming dinner for other creatures will swim downriver and out to sea, returning one day to spawn for themselves.
It’s all a very modern operation, but an ancient legacy. The Pamunkey were tied to the land thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Embedded in the Indians’ culture is a connection to the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it.
Men filter through the hatchery as they make their way on and off the water, exchanging small talk with the workers inside. Women amble in to see the developing embryos, the jerky fry swimming up the hatching jar and into the holding tank. They joke with the men who are mixing, counting and pouring.
The tribe will have a fish fry at the end of this, another successful shad season. They’ve done good work, returned to the river more than they’ve taken. Yet again carried on a ritual that ties them to the seasons, to each other.
Pamunkey Men working the hatchery