A juvenile species of river herring found in a seine net, September 2015 in Raritan Bay near Cliffwood Beach, Aberdeen Township, NJ.
A great article as always in the New York Times from Dave Taft, a highly regarded naturalist in New York City and up the Hudson River. This time he writes about Alewife herring, a species of river herring native to New York Harbor. Every spring, large schools of these forage fish migrate from the Atlantic Ocean to inland rivers and creeks to spawn. But the journey from saltwaters where they mature to freshwaters where they spawn is increasingly perilous. Sure, the herring must deal with hungry predators from birds to larger fish, as they have for centuries, but now they must also deal with a new set of hazards. The silvery fish enter a gauntlet where commercial and recreational fisheries may exploit spawning populations of river herring as bycatch or for use as bait in the recreational striped bass fishery. Moreover, changes in water quality, water temperature and a sharp increase of micro-plastics into the water, which mimic plankton - their chief source of food, all contribute to a much smaller herring population today than it was half a century ago. But as Dave points out, people have not given up. As long as restoration and preservation efforts continue, there is always hope for this valuable aquatic species to endure, and with it the health of the harbor.
- Joe R.
The Stubborn Staying Power of the Alewife Herring
By DAVE TAFT
MARCH 16, 2017
The New York Times
Among the rich natural resources that attracted humans to New York’s harbor was a small migratory fish the colonists called the alewife or sawbelly. As these river herring crowded into spawning creeks every spring, they were noted by the earliest French Jesuits, Dutch trappers and English settlers, and were caught and consumed with abandon by Native Americans and colonists alike.
Alewives are bony, tasty, nutritious and relatively easy to preserve; and, in colonial times, they were abundant. The fish could be eaten by humans or fed to pigs or other livestock. It is highly likely that the famous agricultural mentoring between Squanto, a Patuxet native to what is now Massachusetts, and the pilgrims memorializes yet another less obvious use of herring: as fertilizer for the colonists’ inaugural crops.
Middens and hearths excavated throughout the Northeast are filled with the bones and scales of herring dinners past. But as human settlements grew, both the value and limits of this communal resource became obvious. Alewives were protected by the first known fishery regulations in North America, which date to 1623 in Plymouth Colony. Over time, net sizes, harvest schedules and set locations, as well as catch limits, were all strictly regulated in order to protect these valuable fish.
Some of the early regulations even prohibit the obstruction of rivers, which would have prevented the passage of alewives. However, as the need for energy kept pace with the human population, dams were built throughout the coastal waterways, and this rampant construction brought on the long decline of Alosa pseudoharengus and many other migratory fish species.
It is easy to love alewives. Silvery and streamlined, they can reach a foot or more in length on a diet of plankton. They are determined and stubborn, but their tireless upstream journeys increasingly ended at the dams and obstructions of human industry. Herring are tenacious and resolute; they can be surprisingly difficult to eradicate. Humans, however, have come close to finishing them off.