Columbia River fishermen and processors have wondered for most of a century whether better economic advantage might be taken of the millions of American shad that return to the river each year.
Now, the right conjunction of willing buyers and the right methods may have arrived just as historically robust shad populations plunge perhaps due to an ocean-based parasite.
Non-fishermen hear the word shad and perhaps wonder if some obscure 1950s teen idol is being discussed. But shad are the largest member of the herring family, running about three or four pounds and 17 to 19 inches when mature. They were introduced to the West Coast as a game and commercial fish in the 19th century. A migratory species that spends most of its lifecycle at sea, they made their way north to the Columbia and liked what they found 6.5 million returned here in 2005.
Shad are a beloved food on the East Coast, where their return to rivers like the Hudson is a treasured rite of spring. Though quite boney, their flesh is suitable for many dishes. The real treat, however, are their sacs of roe. Quickly fried in batter, shad roe is a nostalgic and adored delicacy with fans who will get on a wait list at some fish stores so that they will not get left out when the limited supplies arrive, according to The City Cook, an online food guide.
A number of local companies, including Bumble Bee, once made a minor sideline of canning shad roe, but it never really caught on. Old-timers would be in a better position to know why this was, but it may be because consumers prefer their shad eggs fresh rather than preserved. In any event, recent harvests have been modest, with 2,500 commercially landed with traditional gear last year between Washougal and Beacon Rock, Ore., for example.
Now, in an extension of novel efforts that are primarily aimed at saving wild salmon, fisheries managers have approved using experimental gear to catch Columbia shad while allowing other fish to swim on. Purse seines and drift nets will permit fishermen to sort through their catch and release non-targeted species unharmed.
The Asian market is excited about the prospect of buying whole shad, not just their roe. Columbia Basin Bulletin reported this month that one buyer will happily take a million pounds a year. This could be incredibly good economic news, in some ways analogous to the successful marketing of previously under-utilized Pacific whiting to make imitation crab.
Unfortunately, the shad run collapsed to just 1.3 million last year. Researchers arent sure why, but point to a marine parasite called Ichthyophonus epizootic as a possible culprit deserving additional research.
After almost qualifying as a nuisance, shad now have genuine potential of helping feed a hungry world while boosting our local economy in the bargain. This warrants additional research on this parasite, as well as continuing trials of unconventional fishing methods.