The Hudson's Commercial Fishermen: Q&A With John Cronin

Cronin’s Talk and Excerpts from His Film “The Last Rivermen”: Thursday, 7PM, Beacon Institute, Denning’s Point.

John Cronin (L) and the late Henry Gourdine build a shad boat at John’s Manitou home in 1981.

John Cronin (L) and the late Henry Gourdine build a shad boat at John’s Manitou home in 1981.

John Cronin, founding director of Beacon Institute, will give a talk at 7PM on Thursday entitled  “Hudson Rivermen: The Long Life and Untimely Death of an American Icon” at our Center for Environmental Innovation and Education at Denning’s Point in Beacon.  John’s forty-year environmental career, which has centered around the Hudson and attracted international recognition, included a three-year stint as a commercial shad, sturgeon and crab fishermen.

Terry: Net fishing on the Hudson for food and commerce is a tradition that predates even the Dutch settlers. Until the closure of the river’s commercial fishery, a Hudson riverman may have been the oldest continuing occupation in New York. What does a riverman understand that others might not about the Hudson estuary?

John: For centuries, it was the river’s net fishery that defined commercial fishing on the Hudson. With the closure of the American shad fishery in 2010, the last of commercial net fishing ended. There are still a handful of commercial crabbers left who work lines of traps, mostly in summer. The modern rivermen were part-time fishermen — mainly for bass, shad, eel and sturgeon — but their understanding of the estuary, its workings and behavior, is profound.

To be successful, a riverman had to understand the tides and how the river current reacted to wind and weather, even possess a mental picture of the river’s bottom. They were required to know the river by day and by pitch black of night, and work in the foulest of weather. They had to have an idea of how fish reacted to it all — though each lift of a net could be a surprise. Theirs was an intimate, experiential, wet and dirty knowledge of and relationship to the Hudson that cannot be duplicated by any other occupation.

This portrait was captured by the late Joseph Mitchell, legendary writer for The New Yorker, who wrote about rivermen — the Hudson’s commercial fishermen — in his book The Bottom of the Harbor:

Some men work full time on the river — on ferries, tugs or barges — and are not considered rivermen; they are simply men who work on the river. Other men work only part of the year on the river and make only a part of their living there but are considered rivermen.

Terry: What have we lost with the closing of the fishery?

John: There was a time when every city, town and village on the Hudson was home to commercial fishermen. The river’s fishery comprises a tradition, body of knowledge, and set of skills passed by family and friends from generation to generation for centuries, just as has been done on the Chesapeake, Narragansett Bay, Puget Sound and traditional fisheries across the nation. But, like the family farm, traditional commercial fishing is a dying industry in America.

Indeed, for all of our successes on the Hudson, and despite the river’s reputation as modern success story, the single greatest failure of Hudson River environmentalism is the collapse of the commercial fishery. It was a slow-motion tragedy that played out before our eyes even as we celebrated the river’s renaissance.

But it is now our duty to assure it is never forgotten, that the history, skills, tales, and culture live on, that we remember Hudson commercial fishing as an industry that shaped the Hudson River Valley, helped build New York state and yielded a living culture that in part defined who we are as a people.

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