Herring: aka alewives, swaybacks and sawbellys

Where Have all the Herring Gone?

by Amandine Surier

Where Have all the Herring Gone?

Seining herring at Mattakesett Herring Creek, Edgartown, before 1925 (exact date unknown).  

From the time of early settlers, Island men waited for herring to come. After digging for days with ox ploughs and shovels to connect Edgartown Great Pond to the ocean, they would sit and wait for the fish to start running. On cold March nights, they took shelter in small shacks all around the pond and warmed up to fires sometimes fueled with stolen fences from nearby farms, passing time with crude songs, stories, and the best practical jokes. Then the call would come, the herring had come back to Mattakeset Creek, and the season’s work would begin.

Herring, also know as alewives, swaybacks, sawbellys, and in Edgartown, Old Town turkeys, came to our ponds by the thousands. Guided by a remarkable instinct that puts GPS to shame, these anadromous fish unmistakably swam back from the salty offshore waters every year to spawn in the fresh water ponds they were born in. For more than 300 years, the privately-run Mattakeset Herring Creek was the most prolific on Martha’s Vineyard, although fourteen other runs also saw abundant influx of alewives, including Chilmark Pond, Gay Head Herring Creek, Tashmoo Pond, and Tisbury Great Pond.

The silvery fish were caught commercially or recreationally with dip or scoop nets, traps, weirs, or seines and brought considerable income to the towns.

Among the Island community, herring were a staple food consumed fresh during the fishing season or preserved for leaner months. Herring roe was traditionally baked, fried, or broiled and was often considered a delicacy. Salting and smoking the fish also allowed for massive exports to the West Indies to feed slaves, and later to feed American troops during World War II. Smoke houses ran around the clock from March to June, and roofs were covered with strings of drying fish. Herrings were also used as bait by lobstermen and halibut trawlers, for pet food and fish meals, and proved to be an excellent fertilizer. Nothing went to waste. Even the scales were ground into a mother of pearl extract and used to manufacture buttons and simulated pearls.

Although the supply of fish seemed endless at first, the number of herring returning to spawn started declining as early as 1815 due to over-fishing, stream pollution, destruction of spawning grounds, and obstruction of the runs with dams, culverts, or roads.

Until the 1990s, Martha’s Vineyard herring was still abundant enough to sustain a few Island families. On good nights, Buddy Vanderhoop would catch a hundred barrels of fish at the tribal Aquinnah herring run to sell as bait to the local lobstermen. In Tisbury Great Pond, Franklin and Alma Benson, by then well into their seventies, would go seining with their nephew, Omer, and catch three or four hundred pounds of herring to split for roe. Herring numbers plummeted soon after.

In 2006, in an attempt to stall the collapse of the precious resource, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries imposed a moratorium on the taking of river herring. No one was to take a single fish inside state waters for six years. To boost the herring’s recovery, towns, scientists, and volunteers joined forces to restore spawning grounds and improve water quality. All over New England, old dams where removed and fish ladders were built. Then, they waited. But the fish didn’t come back.

For Warren Dotty, president of the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, the vanishing of the fish happens now in federal waters. River herring cannot return, because they die as bycatch in the nets of big sea herring boats. Because of the migratory nature of its life cycle, the river herring needs a management plan not only inside state waters but also in offshore waters. In September of last year, after its requests remained unanswered, the association filed a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Atlantic states Marine Fisheries for failing to protect alewives, demanding a scientific stock assessments and a management plan for the species. For now the lawsuit is in the stages of preliminary motions.

On Martha’s Vineyard no one has caught a herring for years, but locals still ask for herring roe at the fish market. For a while, Louie Larsen, owner of the Net result fish market, got his herring roe from New Jersey, but the moratorium on herring was imposed there too, so he buys shad roe from Boston. It’s three times the size, but similar in flavor. For now, it will have to do. We’ll just keep waiting for the herring to come.