Ark of Taste
Alewife River Herring
The iridescent green and violet glow of the Alewife River Herring coming to spawn in the Northeast was a welcome harbinger of spring for Native American populations. Following tradition, people would cast a net or trap in the rivers, lakes and tributaries and taste the first fresh flesh of spring, a welcome respite from the smoked and dried fish, venison and oysters of winter. The fish’s pale white, almost silvery body and blue-black back could be seen roasting on a fire, fried, smoked or pickled. It provided an important source of Omega-3’s, fat, calories, protein and many vitamins and minerals missing in the winter diet. The Alewife River Herring revitalized a tired palate and restored vigor to people in the Northeast during April and May for hundreds of years.
Due to its briny flavor, delectable roe and utility as fertilizer and fish bait, Alewife River Herring (also known as Bucky, Sawbelly, Golden Shad and Gaspereau) played an important role in the social, economic and ecological well being of the New England coastal regions for centuries. In fact, one of the first fishery laws was passed in 1623 to protected Alewife runs. But since industrialization, flourishing populations of this species began to decline due to overfishing, habit degradation, climate change and compromised water quality. Data is difficult to accrue, but Herring fishing populations in the Northeast seem to have declined by over 95% since their heyday.
Thankfully, proactive action is being undertaken to restore Herring populations in the Northeast. In 2009, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation launched the 10 Year River Herring Program to implement habitat restoration and management, reduce by-catch which contributes to declining population, and conduct further research, monitoring and evaluation to restore the Alewife River Herring’s natural spawning habitats. Millions of dollars are being invested in similar projects and innovative solutions such as building fish ladders around dams further aid the restoration effort.
Further conservation and education efforts are necessary to restore this culturally significant fish to its former glory. As of 2016, this fish should be protected and not eaten, favoring reproduction until its population stabilizes. But hopefully, in the near future, its bony, briny body will be restored to the center of our springtime plates!