In Blomidon Rose, Esther Clarke Wright devotes an entire chapter to the various meanings of the word “gaspereau,” one of them being a fish. This fish, notes Wright, was an important part of the Acadian diet and was one of the reasons why they settled near the Gaspereau River.
What Wright left unsaid was that another fish was equally important with the Acadians in settlements around the Minas Basin. The Habitant, the Canard River, the Cornwallis River, the Avon River, as well as the Gaspereau River, had tremendous runs of shad in the spring; these were harvested and salted down by the Acadians, providing an important addition to their winter food stock.
In the Minas Basin, the shad was always more abundant than gaspereaux, yet it is rarely mentioned in historical accounts as an important food source of the Acadians. Nor do we read much about the importance of shad in the post-Acadian period. History, for the most part, is about people and events, historians rarely chronicling the harvesting of fish when more important events are taking place. Yet, to a degree, the shad is an important historical fish, if only because the Acadians and other settlers depended on it for sustenance.
Various documents exist that tell us the Planters and others who settled around the Minas Basin took advantage of the shad’s abundance, often netting them by the hundreds of thousands in a single year. In his book on early Kings and Hants County history, for example, Henry Youle Hind wrote that in 1787 over 100,000 shad were taken from the Canard River and 120,000 a few years later from the Habitant River.
In reports as early as 1683, shad were described as one of the most abundant fish in the Minas Basin. Writing of the Cornwallis River in 1782, Judge Deschamps said, “in July and August this river affords abundance of fish called shad.” So abundant were shad that settlers often harvested those stranded in pools at low tide. There are records of fixed shad nets extending for over a mile across the mud flats from the mouth of the Cornwallis River towards the Canard River.
Fast forwarding to today, those once abundant schools of shad that were a vital source of sustenance for the early settlers are long gone. All around the Minas Basin and in the Bay of Fundy, right up to the early 1900s, countless thousands of shad were harvested annually. But overfishing on major spawning rivers such as the Cornwallis and Avon, along with pollution and dam building ruined the fishery.
There’s no requiem for the shad, no historical treatises. Only government statistics on catches and entries in family journals record how important and how abundant they were in the colonial period.