The Potomac River - An All-You-Can-Eat Buffet?
"Are there really fish in there?"
It's a question we field from young visitors to the park fairly often, and the answer, of course, is yes. There is a lot of fish in the Potomac River! But the question itself reveals a truth about the river—many folks living in the area today live right along the water but know little about what lives inside of it, and fishing in the Potomac is not the major food source it once was. While the seafood culture lives on, many in the area may be unfamiliar with the intricate ways seafood has shaped the history of this region.
Long before Europeans arrived in the Chesapeake region, the Potomac River was a vibrant ecosystem that was at the center of the lives of the indigenous communities that live around it. While Europeans relied heavily on horses, the indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands made use of the extensive network of navigable rivers and creeks to travel by canoe. The Potomac River was the equivalent of a superhighway, only unlike a modern highway, the Potomac River teemed with life. Perch, herring, shad, oyster, crab and even eel were abundant in the river and its tributaries, and the Piscataway, who still call this area home, made their homes close to, but not fully on the river to utilize its many resources. Many indigenous peoples of North America built fishing weirs, V-shaped underwater dams spanning the width of the river, to capitalize on the seasonal migration of species such as shad and eel. These structures, made out of piles of stones, would channel migrating fish to a narrow point in the river, where they could be easily caught in baskets.
“The shad and herring will start running up the river. The weirs were put across there to catch them, so that would pretty much start the summer seasonal round. You don’t see people out, going out for the herring, like you used to. When I was a kid, soon as spring came around, you see guys going up and down the road with these big chicken wire nets on top of their cars, that were made from wood limbs, and they’d stretched chicken wire over, and they’d go down especially in Piscataway Creek. And they would dip those, and they would come up with barrels and barrels of fish. They started salting them, rather than smoking them, and storing them that way. I guess the salt was a lot easier than smoking.”
- Rico Newman, Piscataway Conoy Tribe and Accokeek Foundation Board member
When Europeans arrived, they too made extensive use of the river, settling near the banks of the Potomac and its navigable tributaries to have easy access to imported goods and to aid in shipping tobacco. Colonists also adopted the use of fishing weirs, and commercial fishing operations sprung up along the waterways. Salted and dried fish, which could easily be stored for long ship journeys, was an important commodity in the growing colonial triangle trade, and could be very lucrative for producers. At Mount Vernon, George Washington, like many other large plantation owners along the river, had an extensive shad and herring fishing operation, with three distinct fisheries along the river. During the migration season in April and May, enslaved fishers would spread large seine nets between two boats, and could expect to bring in tens of thousands of shad and over a million herring per season. What wasn’t consumed by the Washington family or sold would have been doled out to the hundreds of enslaved people living and working at Mount Vernon, as was common on plantations throughout the colonized world. With an allotment of 20 fish to each enslaved individual per month, fish would have been a critical part of the diets of enslaved people at Mount Vernon.
" ...the whole shore in short is one entire fishery"
-George Washington to Arthur Young, 12 December 1793
Over time, population growth and the development of industry along the Potomac led to overfishing and a decline in water quality. Sewer systems that came along in the 19th century drained directly into the river and its tributaries, taking with them a host of bacteria. By the end of the 19th century, the US Public Health Service had already noted that “at certain times of the year the river is so loaded with sediments as to be unfit for bathing as well as for drinking and cooking purposes. It contains fecal bacilli at all times.” The Potomac, once a spawning ground for American Shad, became too toxic for them to thrive. For eel, overfishing caused a significant blow to the population, and upstream dams, which disrupted the natural migration pattern of eel, inhibited recovery. It would not be until 1972 that America passed the Clean Water Act.
Today, after nearly a half-century of work, the Potomac River has a B- rating from the Potomac Conservancy, a tremendous improvement from the low points of the '60s and '70s. As a result, shad restoration efforts have been tremendously successful, with the population receiving an A rating. A number of eel restoration efforts are underway in the upper Potomac as well, though with the long lifespan of eel, this might take more time. But along the river, the seafood culture lives on, especially within the Piscataway community and many families keep the tradition of fishing on summer weekends alive.