The Founding Fish

by John McPhee
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1696

In his twenty-sixth book, John McPhee profiles a species of fish, the American shad–Alosa sapidissima—and dozens of men and women who fish for shad, biologists and ichthyologists who study shad, environmentalists who seek to preserve shad habitat, and others including several of McPhee’s own ancestors. This book, like his famous “geological” text, Annals of the Former World (1998), provides in equal mixture the anecdotal and the technical, the scientific and the affective, a technique that in McPhee’s hand ensures lively and informative, if at times challenging, reading. Many of its most delightful passages provide detailed, lyrical descriptions of historically important shad rivers such as the Delaware and the Connecticut, the Hudson, the Schuylkill, the Susquehanna, and others. Typically, he also provides passages dense and rich with the important scientific exposition based on work done in the twentieth century by ichthyologists to reveal the details of the species’ life cycle and the pernicious effects of dams and pollution on it. Much of the book is likewise devoted to detailed descriptions of McPhee and others in the water catching—or trying to catch—shad and preparing and eating this most savory fish. Some readers may view his confession that he is a “meat” fisherman as paradoxical coming as it does at the end of his love song to the shad. The book as a whole reveals the enormous importance of the shad to the history of the country, and the intriguing complexity of the shad’s sensitivity to the ecology and health of rivers.

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Ever curious about the natural world and humankind’s interactions with it, McPhee deepens his (and his readers’) understanding of the shad through research, interviews, and participant observation. The chapter titles reveal both their content and McPhee’s attitude toward his subject and create a subtle and satisfying rounding of his work. In the first chapter, “They’re in the River,” McPhee puts his readers in the river, in a johnboat with himself and two companions, Ed Cervone and his son, Edmund Cervone, on the Delaware River between New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Lambertville, New Jersey. Toward the end of winter, shad, which are schooling ocean fish during most of their adult life, begin their run upstream mostly to their birthplaces to spawn and complete the life cycle. As they begin their move, the word goes out by e-mail and telephone, radio and television, that “they’re in the river,” and fishermen appear on the river in congregating numbers, hoping to catch a share of this delectable, savory if bony, and historical fish. The river is thus crowded below the surface with (in most years) vast numbers of shad. It is also crowded on the surface and along the banks with huge numbers of fishermen, especially at places such as dams or serious rapids that cause the fish to “school up.” McPhee memorializes such expert shad fishers as Buddy Grucela and Gerald Hartzel, celebrating (and perhaps envying) their skill at catching shad.

The other chapters continue McPhee’s postgraduate course in shad. McPhee buttresses or explains his personal observation of the fish, its history, and its habitats with testimony and analysis from “visiting” scholars and with textual references. For example, chapter 2, “A Selective Advantage,” reveals his typical strategy when he allows Boyd Kynard, field biologist and director of the S. O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, to explain (between casts and catches) what a shad’s scale reveals through chemical analysis. One may learn its age, its specific place of origin, where it did its growing, and why it behaves the way it does, including literally stopping to study a strange riffle or even dying of fright at times. Because they are a schooling fish, when one stops, all (or nearly all) will stop, too. Swimming together in a huge school has hydrodynamic advantages; like bicyclers in a pack, the fish draft each other and thus, as a group, go farther faster using less energy. However, the selective advantage turns out to go, in Kynard’s view, to those fish who get farthest upstream to spawn, because their offspring will find more to eat on their way down to the ocean and will therefore be larger and less likely to be eaten on the trip down—genetics plus behavior plus environment.

Because shad are very sensitive to their environment, the populations of various shad fisheries are affected by artificial obstacles (dams) that bar their way to and from their spawning grounds and pollution, including sedimentation and chemical pollution. On some rivers, industrialization in the nineteenth century effectively ended shad spawning runs far short of their normal spawning grounds and nearly eliminated some populations. By building such dams as the one at Holyoke, Massachusetts, the Connecticut River populations were severely affected. Commercial fishing boats off shore overfished other populations by intercepting the large schools and translating them into human food or fertilizer.

Chapter 3, “Amending Nature,” reveals how the Pamunkey tribe near Richmond, Virginia, maintained their traditional shad fishery, while other East Coast fisheries were crashing, by setting up a fish hatchery in 1918, later tearing it down and building a much larger one to ensure shad survival on the Pamunkey River. In spawning season, the Pamunkey people will catch as many as eighty female spawners a day, strip the roe into buckets, and strip the milt from male spawners into the same buckets. They let the buckets stand for an hour and then transfer the contents, a hundred thousand fertilized eggs per three liters, to hatching jars attached to tanks. About seven million fingerlings survive per eight-week season and are released through tubes into the Pamunkey River, thereby assisting and “amending” nature. An increasing number of fish hatcheries on other rivers assist the recovery of their shad populations. One of the most important devices for amending the rivers is the Clean Water Act of 1972. It mandated tearing down many nineteenth century dams and removing water pollution, bringing shad (and other species) back from disaster. However, as McPhee points out, seventy-eight dams on major East Coast rivers continue to block shad migrations. Similar problems exist on the West Coast, where Seth Green successfully transplanted shad fingerlings in 1878 to establish what is now a thriving shad fishery, but not without its own problems of pollution and dam blockage. As an anadromous species, shad must spawn in the best fresh water they can find, their progeny returning to the ocean for a period of three to eight years to mature. Then they themselves will return to their natal river to spawn and repeat the cycle—unless stopped by humankind’s waste or unthinking industrialization.

McPhee argues in his powerful narratives for much greater ecological activity to preserve and extend shad and other species. The successes of dam removals, fishery restoration with fish hatcheries, as well as the shelving of such destructive and short-sighted plans as damming the Bay of Fundy have brought several species back from near extinction on a number of watersheds. Powering that rebound has been the scholarly work of a number of biologists and ichthyologists such Boyd Kynard, Richard St. Pierre, Willy Bemis, and Mike Dadswell, whose work McPhee celebrates. Kynard, for instance, thinks that the cooling of the ocean in places that were once good places for shad to overwinter may be causing the formerly abundant food sources to decline, thus contributing to the decline of shad populations.

McPhee is a vast and intelligent reader as well as listener. Consequently, he makes full and effective use of many forms of traditional narrative to enrich and enliven (if not leaven) his prose, celebrating and critiquing the connections between Homo sapiens andAlosa sapidissima. The book is a treasury of personal and traditional anecdotes about the fish and its hunters. For instance, he relates a number of stories from his own family history, going back several generations to suggest the strong relationship between personal history and community, regional, and national history. In the chapter entitled “The Shad City,” for example, McPhee notes that his father was a publisher in Philadelphia who bought shad from a street vendor and carried it home in a newspaper through streets strident with the Philadelphia yodel of “Shad-e-o!” The food traditions of Philadelphia were rich in recipes for shad, and writers of that city avowed that only in Philadelphia was shad properly and truly appreciated. One popular legend has it that General Washington’s troops at Valley Forge were saved from starvation by the unseasonable appearance of huge schools of shad in the Schuylkill in the early spring of 1778. McPhee cites historian Wayne Bodle’s judgment of the story as nothing less than “the providentialist canard” to support his own assessment of it as “recommended by everything but sources.” (Other stories—that the young Washington was a commercial shad fisherman and that Thomas Jefferson had “hauled” seine as a youth—McPhee accepts as historically factual because they are supported by written sources.)

These examples of shad stories circulating in the oral tradition testify to the important place of the shad in American history and culture. Perhaps they also warrant a call to modify some of them by implicitly arguing that recalling and maintaining personal and community oral history and traditions provides an important context for understanding the broader history of community and state. It also suggests a complex and compelling relationship between and among species and the powerful, mythic relationship of the American shad to colonial history from first European settlement to the Revolutionary War and now down to the twenty-first century. McPhee titles the book The Founding Fish to suggest these functions as both a literal and a mythic basis of the country’s origin and survival and thus to warrant and celebrate the work of restoration and conservation that has brought the shad fishery back from severe “crashes” in a number of eastern rivers. This rich mixture of anecdotes, tall tales, and personal narratives with scientific data and testimony gives McPhee’s work its characteristic compelling flavor and tone, making it a fit addition to his oeuvre.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (July, 2002): 1799.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (December 8, 2002): 16.

Publishers Weekly 249 (August 26, 2002): 57.

Time 160 (November 25, 2002): 94.

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