Blueback River Herring

Its March and the spring spawn of Blueback River Herring. Every year these fish migrate from the ocean to spawn in the tributaries of the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays, where I grew up. My grandfather told me the herring ran so thick he could walk on water. I didn't believe him until I found the 1607 journals of John Smith (yes, the Pocahontas guy), and I quote, "...we found, and in divers places that aboundance of fish, lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan". Yet, the pan didn't work well, so he took to his sword, stabbing more fish in an hour than his men could eat in a day. 
I've search these waters of lore for such bounty. Octararo. Rappahannock. Wicomico. Nanticoke. Sassafras Pocomoke Chester Gunpowder White Clay Brandywine and here, the Susquehanna. 
But everywhere I the waters are empty. Why? We've taken too many. Commercial harvest peaked in 1908 at 66 million tons and crashed by the 1980's. We've dammed every creek and river, no pun intended. See here the Conowingo Dam, a 100 ft. barrier to migration. We've ruined remaining habitat with silt and pollutants from bad agriculture and sloppy industry. Now its illegal to catch and keep even one herring in fear that they'll go extinct. Despite being one of my favorite fish, I've never seen one.

These fish are at the heart of bay ecosystem. They feast on algae and are prey to birds and bigger fish, like rockfish, connecting lower and upper trophic levels. Next time you cross a river, I encourage you to stop, look into its waters. You'll see a rocky bottom, beautiful, but void of fish. It might appear normal, but its not. Its like looking into a wrist watch without cogs. Herring are a bellwether of ecological integrity. Something worth fighting for.

Free the waters. Practice good farming. Understand what your place wants to be.

Philip TaylorComment