Manataka American Indian Council










Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes keep fish in river, food on table
By Lee Graves, Point of View 

The words of Carl Custalow contain a simple yet profound truth.

"If you give back, you'll always have."

You hear the same philosophy expressed in different ways.

Conservationists think of renewable resources.

Anglers practice catch-and-release.

Many a fisherman, myself included, has taken the hook from a shad or two in recent weeks so the silvery fish would have only the slightest pause in its run from ocean to spawning grounds.

Catching shad is more than a recreational pastime for Custalow, however. As chief of the Mattaponi Indians, he is responsible for the welfare of his people. And that includes making certain that shad, a source of food and income for generations, continue their annual rite of spring.

For nearly 90 years, the Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes have operated shad hatcheries on the rivers that bear their names. Those waters, which form the York River, define their reservations and once dictated their culture.

Shad have played a fundamental role.

"It's a part of our way of life," said Custalow, whose tribal name is "Lone Eagle."

That way of life is gaining increased recognition. In the National Museum of the American Indian that opened last year in Washington, an exhibit depicting tribal life sheds light on shad. And a demonstration of the Pamunkey hatchery operation drew throngs at last summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival, said Warren Cook, assistant chief of the Pamunkey tribe.

"We're going national with the shad," he said with a laugh.

On the Pamunkey Reservation adjacent to King William County, the tribe's museum documents practices and customs spanning thousands of years.

William Strachey, writing in 1612, described the "great store" of shad, a fish he found sweet, fat and full of bones. The fish were harvested using nets made of "barks of certain trees or a kind of grass which they call pemmenaw, of which their women between their hands and thighs spin a thread very even and readily."


The Pamunkey and Mattaponi still use nets, but they have graduated from grass to modern materials. Their hatcheries, which started a year apart, also combine sophisticated equipment with time-tested methods.

For the men who keep the hatcheries running -- primarily Cook and Ivy Bradley for the Pamunkey, Custalow and son Todd for the Mattaponi --  sleep goes out the window when shad come into the river.

The spawning run can last from late March to early May. Boats go out fishing during the day, but evenings are devoted to catching spawners. The roe from females is mixed with sperm from males on the boats, and the mixture sits in water for about an hour while the eggs swell.

From there, a fascinating process unfolds. After four to six days in hatching jars, the baby shad pierce the egg sacs with their tails. They move into holding tanks -- 250 to 300 gallons filled with swirling river water. When they develop mouths and shed their sacs -- after about three days -- the fry are fed brine shrimp over the course of about eight days. Finally, the fry move through pipes back to the river.

At a specified point during that process, the fish are chemically "tagged" by using oxytetracycline to mark rings of their ear bones. Years later, a scientist can look at the marking and tell where the fish originated.

That tagging process is a prominent facet of the effort to restore populations of American shad. The species declined drastically when dams mushroomed along rivers and prevented shad from returning to their spawning grounds.

While other river systems crashed, the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers maintained fairly good shad runs, said Tom Gunter, coordinator of Virginia's American shad restoration effort and a district fisheries biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

"Knowing what we know now with the return of hatchery fish, I'm sure that those hatcheries on both reservations are the reason those rivers maintained some type of decent fishery," he said.

Shad eggs from the Pamunkey helped restore populations in the Susquehanna River in the 1970s and later in other rivers, including the James.

"What the Indians have done is afforded Virginia an opportunity to restore American shad throughout the river systems simply because they had the foresight to operate those hatcheries," Gunter said.

"I think they deserve a lot of credit for what they've done."

Recognition for tribal ways in general has not been easy to come by historically. Despite various treaties, Virginia's tribes suffered decades of ethnic abuse.

"We survived it, and we survived it with dignity," Custalow said.

Much of that dignity comes from a heritage of living close to the land -- and the water.

Standing outside his house overlooking the Pamunkey River, Cook recalled times when hunting duck and geese, trapping snapping turtles and catching shad sustained the tribe.

"Everything was centered around the river," he said. His father worked as a hunting and fishing guide and drank water straight from the river.

"He lived to be 103," Cook said and smiled.

Things change, though, just as nature moves through her cycles. Most members of both tribes work off their reservations.

Sometimes even the shad take a turn for the worse, as they have this year.

"It's one of the worst seasons in the past six or seven years," Cook said. Erratic weather kept water temperatures low, delaying the spawn.

"Everything is a little off this season. We think it's just a cycle."

Only four hatching tubes were active on the 10 tanks at the Mattaponi hatchery last week, another sign of a slow season.

They've weathered worse, such as Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Todd Custalow, Carl's son, showed pictures of storm water several feet deep inside the hatchery, a frustrating turn of events in a facility completed only three years earlier.

Isabel devastated both hatcheries. But both were rebuilt, and both will continue to give back, to the tune of millions of fry a year.

That is the way of their tribes, the way Custalow and Cook learned from their ancestors, and it's what they are passing on to those who follow.

"It gives me a good feeling that I can still continue to help," Custalow said.




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