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The Voice of the River

 “My grandfather felt that, when things start getting bad, you don’t stop fishing. You keep going. You create partnerships and you keep going. He was really the voice of the river, the voice of action.”

-Steve Meserve

Only a few miles upriver of where General George Washington made his famous crossing of the Delaware River, Steve Meserve continues a family tradition that has endured on this mighty river every spring since 1888. It’s the Lewis Shad Fishery, the only remaining commercial shad fishery on a river that once supported scores of them.

Using methods almost identical to those of his great grandfather, Meserve and an assistant shove a 19-foot rowboat from a small island off Lambertville, N.J., easing out a long seine net as they move across the river. When they arc and return, a crew of friends and family on shore starts hauling in the net. In a few minutes, Meserve is back, helping to sort the catch: a few shad keepers and smaller shad and catfish that get returned to the river.

Meserve, who works as a computer programmer, learned the ropes at age 13 from his grandfather, Fred Lewis; Lewis learned from his father, William P. Lewis, who started the fishery as a teenager in 1888. At the time, there were five commercial shad fisheries on this short stretch of river. In 1896, they each caught more than 10,000 shad a year, selling from the basement of their island cabin to markets in New York and Philadelphia.

Shad’s Ups and Downs

 “Over the generations, the Lewis Shad Fishery has supplied shad for a whole variety of cultures,” says Dr. Charlie Groth, a Lambertville folklorist who has studied and helped with the fishery for many years. When Groth asked customers how they planned to cook their shad, she discovered the fish’s important place at the table for African-Americans, Asians, East Indians, Mexicans and Jewish people. “Sometimes, it’s a regular United Nations under that cabin.”

As the old Lewis fishing records can attest, shad catches have long had ups and downs, but numbers declined sharply in the 1940s due to pollution. “In 1949, we caught only three fish after 30 days on the river and 32 hauls,” Meserve says. “By 1953 and 1956, we had zero. No shad at all.”

Fred Lewis, Steve Meserve’s grandfather, forged relationships with biologists who were studying the American shad’s decline. Lewis showed scientists how to use a seine net, showed them his fishing records and provided sample fish to study. The scientists provided irrefutable data linking the river’s oxygen depletion to pollution.

“The Voice of Action”

With the raft of state and federal policies that followed, the river is now far cleaner than it was, but shad numbers are still low. In 2011, Meserve hauled in only 43 shad, making his “commercial” fishery more of a hobby than a money-making enterprise. And many vexing problems remain, like large ocean fisheries that kill countless shad and other species as unwanted byproducts—by-catch—of fishing for commercial fish.

“My great-grandfather was a very stubborn man,” Meserve says. “He always felt that, when things start getting bad, you don’t stop fishing. You keep going. You create partnerships and you keep going. He was really the voice of the river, the voice of action.”

The partnerships and persistence of Fred Lewis—and now his grandson—are smart strategies, according to Eric Olsen, The Nature Conservancy’s Delaware River Basin’s project manager. “And that’s what we strive toward. Our work in the Delaware River and Bay is long-term and focused on protecting, restoring and maintaining functioning ecosystems, which includes American shad and other fish that rely on fresh and salt water. We hope to see the Delaware’s health improve, and with it more shad—enabling the connection between the river, the Lewis Fishery, and the surrounding communities to continue.  It’s a centuries-old tradition we hope to see live on.”

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