Pamunkey Shad Hatchery: Is it Ethical?

We recently had the opportunity to visit the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in West Point, Virginia.  The Pamunkey Indian tribe has been living with Shad as a big part of their culture and lifestyle for hundreds of years.  They have been connected in a mutually beneficial relationship long before the white man came over from Europe.  They have grown with the fish and developed new ways of cooking and preserving the animal such as slow roasting over a fire to remove the bones and, more recently, the development of fish hatcheries.  But many people view the continued operation of catching shad as unethical because of the extensive issues facing the fish.  The Native Americans have long practiced the philosophy that everything they take out of nature should be put back in, and there is a reason that John Smith described the biological world in 1607 America to be so thick and plentiful.  Unfortunately, ever since John Smith wrote down that thought, the biology in the Chesapeake has suffered.  What came with John Smith and his mates was centuries of stress on the Chesapeake Bay, most notably from overfishing and pollution.  As a result, we as a culture have lost the right to fish certain endangered species out of the bay.  However, that is only our culture, because the Native American culture should not be blamed for this situation and should be able to continue in their practice of catching Shad.

A lecture featuring Kate Livie showed how the amount of Shad in the Chesapeake Bay region has been dramatically reduced over the last century due to overfishing, decreased water quality and the installation of dams preventing the fish from swimming up-river.  They are very sensitive to water quality and will not survive in an area with a high concentration of nutrients (Livie).  Since the white man’s culture has been continuously throwing nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay watershed through agriculture for decades, the Shad have noticeably and dramatically suffered.  Mrs. Livie noted that in 1979 there were only 50 shad in the entire Susquehanna River.  This fish was a huge part of all nearby cultures and our society as a whole before it virtually disappeared.  It was so prominent that everyone around in the early 20th century would be shocked and appalled that many of the younger people in the 21st century have never even tasted it.  This is a fish that everyone ate 100 years ago and has now almost absent from the Chesapeake Bay watershed we love to take advantage of.  There is a certain culture responsible for this and it is not the one that believes in replacing everything they take from nature.

The Pamunkey fish hatchery does a tremendous job of replacing whatever they catch back into the Pamunkey River.  We recently had the opportunity to talk to Warren Cook, a Pamunkey native who has worked with the hatchery flowing Shad eggs back into the river for over half a century.  He showed us how hundreds of thousands of Shad are put back into the river every year.  Warren Cook was very concerned about Shad numbers because they have been in a down cycle for the past couple of years.  He was worried that the low Shad numbers could motivate the state government to move to cut funding for the operation in an attempt to help the Shad population.  Warren shared with us that their main goals while catching Shad is to eat it but also to sell it.  Both the shad and the shad roe especially command high prices due to the lack of supply (W. Cook, personal communication, September 14, 2015).  This should not be an issue with anyone because the Pamunkey tribe have always had the Shad’s best interest in mind and has made every effort to restore any damage done.  It is the other part of our society that has ruined the Shad population and the Pamunkey should not be punished for this.

Dr. John Seidel said during a social science lecture that culture stems from the environment and is directly related to the surrounding ecosystem.  It is often shaped by the surrounding biological world (Seidel).  Shad has been a huge part of the Pamunkey tribe culture for hundreds of years and would and should be today if it was not for mistakes made out of their control.  Pamunkey Indians should have the opportunity to harvest Shad because it is such a big and important part of their culture.

Works Cited

Livie, K. (2015). Shad Fishing on the Chesapeake [Powerpoint slides].

Seidel, J. (2015). Science and Society – Part 1 [Powerpoint slides].


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