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'Something of a complicated story': Centuries of fishing conservation on the Connecticut River

 A view of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts.
Creative Commons /
A view of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts.

River fishing been a documented part of indigenous and European tradition in New England for hundreds of years. It provided an important source of nutrition and rural commerce. Historian Erik Reardon wrote about this in his book, "Managing the River Commons," from UMass Press.

Reardon explained how protecting migratory fish, on rivers like the Connecticut, has been an evolving and longstanding effort. He explains how fishing regulations were measured.

Erik Reardon, author: Hard, quantitative evidence is often hard to come by for the Colonial period. It's really not until the 19th century that we have a class of individuals known as fish inspectors who are essentially charged with inspecting barrels of salted and smoked river fish — whether that's alewives, American shad or salmon.

We have narrative descriptions on the abundance of river fisheries throughout the Colonial period into the 19th century by people like local historians like Sylvester Judd. And they invariably describe amazing seasonal runs of migratory, anadromous fish. So it's more of these qualitative descriptions that I rely on to establish some type of baseline level of abundance prior to commercial overexploitation and then industrial takeover of rivers like the Connecticut River.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Even with the qualitative measurements, those farmer-fishermen in the Colonial period from within, pushed for conservation measures to limit overfishing. What made it easier for them to develop that process?

The Connecticut River is something of a complicated story, because it's one of the most commercially viable regions of interior New England. The Connecticut River Valley had some of the most fertile and productive soils in all of New England. So, as you might imagine, landowners in the region were able to amass a certain amount of wealth and influence and power in that region.

The story that I'm trying to tell, which is small subsistence-level agrarian communities who engage with local markets when it's advantageous for them, but whose primary motivation is an ability to provide for themselves and their families in a comfortable way so that one bad harvest wouldn't completely destroy their livelihood.

And so there is this tension between the larger commercial producers in the region and the smaller agricultural communities that rely on a number of different economic activities to secure that comfortable subsistence. My story is really one of these smaller producers — these interior, upland communities — advocating for conservation proposals that they believe will sustain these seasonal fish migrations into the future. And they see the commercial fishermen as a threat to their livelihoods and really their way of life.

"History of Hadley, Massachusetts" historian Sylvester Judd wrote about people who lived along the Connecticut River. What were some of the observations he made about the relationship of those farmer fishermen with their catch?

Yeah. And you used the term farmer fisherman, which is really quite appropriate because these are seasonal opportunists, I think you could say. These are folks who are leaving their planting fields sort of late spring or early summer, arriving to these locations — typically along sort of fall lines, waterfalls, particularly on the Connecticut River, where fish cluster in schools below, trying to ascend these difficult obstacles to get to their spawning grounds further north.

And what Sylvester Judd is talking about is these seasonal arrivals of farmers. And it's sort of a social opportunity for these farmers to sort of reconnect after a difficult winter. There's descriptions of them sharing a gallon of rum, engaging in some games of sport. But then, of course, the business of fishing that they're there to do, acquire their fair share of the seasonal catch that they can then bring home to their families. And Judd really describes these sites of seasonal fishing as very productive locales, attracting fishermen from all across the region. And these are the types of people that are more inclined to restrain their fishing behavior in favor of the long-term sustainability of the resource itself.

In the later chapters of your work, we read about more contemporary restoration projects. How might modern-day environmentalists use this history?

What really I'm trying to accomplish with this book is to demonstrate to folks who are concerned today about environmental issues, whether they're related to rivers or otherwise, that there are deep commitments — at least in the case of New England's history — to conservation and sustainability that I think are kind of lost and forgotten to us today. Specifically, as it pertains to the example of dams, dams have always been controversial.

Ever since the proposals to install dams — especially when those industrial dams started to emerge in the early 19th century — there were fishermen, small millers, landowners who formed these coalitions to resist proposals to install these large industrial dams, and therefore transform the local economy to one organized around industrialization, industrial capitalism. So the idea that one particular group can have the power to define how to use rivers and how to manipulate rivers, that has always been controversial.

So as we're continuing to debate dam removal, as we're continuing to figure out how does hydropower fit in to the current push towards renewable energy, I think these historical debates have real value and can really add to the conversation. These are questions and conversations that go back a really long ways in New England's history.

Copyright 2022 New England Public Media. To see more, visit New England Public Media.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of Morning Edition at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment Beacon Hill In 5 for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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