While browsing The Independent, an historic newspaper from Elizabeth City, I was intrigued by an advertisement for The Shad Man. Although the nickname amused me, I questioned the ad’s presence in a North Carolina newspaper. The advertisement was for a vendor at the Dock Street Fish Market in Philadelphia—some 300 miles north of Elizabeth City!
Why was a Philadelphia fish merchant seeking shad from North Carolina? It’s hard to say with certainty. Clearly there was a demand. That’s confirmed by the number of ads appearing in The Independent from other fish merchants in Philadelphia, as well as those in New York and Baltimore. All are seeking shad.
An article in the June 14, 1925 issue of The News and Observer, hints at one reason the merchants had turned their attentions southward. The writer notes,”The waters here, unpolluted as they are, have a tremendous advantage over the waters of the sounds to the north, with their vast cities.” Pollution, it seems, was causing a decline in shad in the north.
In fact, by the time the article appeared in The News and Observer, shad were already dwindling in North Carolina waters, too. The reduced supply had caused the price to increase from 25 cents to $2.50 per pound, according to the article.
The number of shad continued to decline into the 1930s. Writer and conservationist Rachel Carson was among those who raised the alarm. As a junior aquatic biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson was responsible for studying fish populations and writing brochures and pamphlets to educate the general public. An article she penned on shad appeared in the February 28, 1937 edition of The News and Observer. She wrote:
Many of the major rivers of New England, where shad once furnished a commercial catch of two million pounds are no longer considered shad streams. From New York to Delaware the catch has dropped from nearly 22 million pounds in 1901 to less than a million in 1934. Shad fishermen of the Chesapeake, center of the industry, took 17 million pounds annually in the late 1890s; in 1934 the catch failed to total five million pounds. On the South Atlantic coast the yield had dropped from 11 million to 2 1/2 million pounds.
The amazing picture of depletion is the product of the triple menace of overfishing, obstructing dams and polluted waterways. In narrow-mouthed bays and river estuaries the maze of nets and traps obstructing the passage upstream takes a heavy toll of fish before they have spawned. Dams for industry and navigation have spelled the destruction of the shad runs in the upper and middle reaches of the rivers. Fishways, providing a graded ascent, have been built into certain of the dams, but the shad, in contrast to the aggressive salmon, is a shy and retiring fish and will not use the ladders. In other areas lumber mills have dumped sawdust into the streams, choking their channels; silt washed from eroded hillsides covers the spawning beds, smothering the eggs and fry; industrial and municipal pollution has poisoned other waters so that shad will not enter or spawn in them.
As the shad population dwindled, state and federal officials along with fishermen attempted to find remedies. Their solutions included altering the length of the fishing season and restricting the types of nets that could be used. Some even suggested killing cormorants, a protected bird known to attack the nets of caught shad.
Today, thanks to federal and state regulations as well as the removal of some dams, shad are again returning to North Carolina waters. And each spring shad lovers can again enjoy their favorite fish and its roe. Perhaps there’s even a shad man somewhere in Philadelphia at this very moment doing his best to find some North Carolina-caught shad.