Encounter: The Mattaponi River
In this report by Peter Solomon, Mattaponi chief Carl Custalow explains the process of fertilization and release that has been practiced at the Mattaponi shad hatchery since the 1920s. This is one of five separate features, produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, that aired in May 2007 and explored the lives of contemporary Virginia Indians.
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Lydia Wilson: A similar sense of opportunity and obligation guides the Mattaponi Tribe of King William County. The Mattaponi are a partner with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in an effort to repopulate Virginia’s rivers with shad—that’s the largest variety of herring, once highly valued for its flavor. Peter Solomon reports.
Solomon: It’s a gusty morning on the Mattaponi Reservation, Chief Carl Lone Eagle Custalow is in his mid-sixties, wears glasses, and dresses like an outdoorsman. He stands in his yard with his son Todd and grandson Connor. Much as has changed for the Mattaponi since Chief Custalow was his grandson’s age; he remembers many times when his father would return home and put him and his eight siblings to work, clearing fish from the nets.
Custalow: No matter what was going on, if you were in school and he was fishing during the day, when you saw him walking up to that school, you automatically stood up and went out the door.
Solomon: Mostly due to overfishing, shad populations in Virginia waterways have declined greatly since Chief Custalow was young. Since 1994 a moratorium has been in effect on shad fishing in the Chesapeake Bay region, with limited exceptions. For ninety years the Mattaponi have made efforts to bring back the shad population.
Custalow: My grandfather built the first hatchery in 1917, it opened, and we’ve run a hatchery ever since then.
Solomon: A hatchery is literally where shad eggs are hatched. In 2000 the Mattaponi built a new, state-of-the-art facility.
Custalow: Yeah, it’s going to be noisy in here.
Solomon: Inside the new hatchery, the chief’s son Todd explains that the initial phase of fertilizing the eggs actually takes place on the boat. It starts by taking the female fish, or roe, and squeezing her belly to extract the eggs into a bucket.
Todd Custalow: Once we get a sufficient amount of eggs in a bucket we’ll catch a male fish, called a buck and what we want from him is the milt, or the sperm, and we’ll help him squeeze out the milt into the eggs.
Solomon: This hands-on process increases the fertilization rate by at least 60 percent. Fertilization is only part of the battle; shad live their adult lives in saltwater and return to rivers like the Mattaponi to spawn. To track this migration, the young fish, or fry, are chemically tagged at specific stages of their development, says John Olney, head of the Department of Fishery Science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Olney: Ideally, each hatchery is using a special marking sequence so that we can separate James River fish from York River fish, for example, or Pamunkey River fish from Mattaponi fish.
Solomon: Like the Mattaponi Tribe, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe has run a shad hatchery for nine decades. Todd Custalow believes that both tribes have made valuable contributions to the annual shad runs.
Todd Custalow: Yeah, I firmly believe that our hatcheries is what has helped our rivers sustain the shad run and the shad population. You can’t just keep taking, and taking, and taking from the river, you gotta put back and that way there will be fish there for future generations.
Solomon: Chief Carl Custalow says the Mattaponi River is the lifeblood of this tribe.
Custalow: Years ago, we weren’t allowed to go to public schools, we weren’t allowed to work the public jobs, and people living on the reservation actually made their living with farming, fishing, and things of that sort. Without the river I don’t think this reservation, or the people on it, could have survived.
Solomon: The Mattaponi Reservation is one of the oldest in the United States. Their philosophy of putting back what they take from the river helps to insure that this valuable resource will keep providing shad for future generations. For VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, I’m Peter Solomon.