The Mighty Herring Fisheries
When the shadbush bloomed in spring, the hard work and celebrations began. Schools of shad and river herring teemed in from the ocean through inlets and into the Sound and up rivers, bound for their birth places to spawn a new generation.
At a time when people lived off the land, these silver fish brought great joy and the promise of full cupboards, a fine reason for exuberant annual celebrations.
Buckets, baskets, nets, poles. Families scooped up fish that would feed them throughout a long winter. Shad had to be kept on ice to stay fresh, so it was eaten immediately, but the oily flesh of herring lent itself to salting, pickling and drying that would preserve it for a year or more.
(Well into the twentieth century you could find community celebrations of herring runs — and barrels of corned herring in country kitchens.)
Around the end of the 19th century, herring could be purchased on river banks in spring for as little as one dollar a thousand, though the average price was $2.50. A dollar a month, wrote one Chowan County native, would procure for a person the most usual diet of much of the population — herring, cornbread (corn was 40 cents a bushel) and tea brewed from native yaupon holly.
From the 1760s on, commercial fisheries were operating on Albemarle rivers, catching fish in cunning, labyrinthine weirs of poles and reeds. Pickled herring were shipped up the coast to Baltimore, New York and Boston; west to the Great Plains; and south to the West Indies. By sail. By steamer. By rail.
A century later, about the same time shad boats were first skimming waters, the pound net was introduced, while huge seine nets were catching vast numbers of fish with breathtaking efficiency.
Every plantation had a shoreline of smooth sand where fish were landed and processed. Capstans, or windlasses for hauling seines in, salting houses, processing sheds, and offices created a mini fishing town.
During fish hauls, two ten-oared boats would carry a seine more than two miles long and several feet deep off shore. Boatmen would row in opposite directions extending the seine, which had a line of corks on top to keep it afloat and a line of lead weights on the bottom to sink it. The seine would be strung out in a direction to block the herring as they swam upstream to spawn.
In 1861 Harper’s Weekly published a moment-by-moment rapid-fire account of hauling in a catch. Here is an excerpt. It begins after the fish have been caught in the seine and the seine is attached to capstans.
In this instance, mules are used to turn the capstans to tighten the seine until the fish are crowded and surrounded by net on shore.
Fifty stalwart men rush into the water, waist-deep. The captains shout and swear, the gulls and eagles scream, and dashing into the melee, audaciously snatch their share of the spoil.
A few minutes of heavy dragging and the flashing, wriggling mass is rolled upon the beach; a line of wide planks is hastily staked up behind, the net withdrawn, and the boatmen again put off cheerily to repeat the haul.
The women and boys now rush knee-deep into the gasping heap. The shad are first counted into baskets and carried to the packing-house; while the herring are headed, cleaned, and thrown into tubs, ready for the salters—all of which is transacted with merciless coolness and the most wonderful celerity.
It requires from five to seven hours to complete a haul ; and as there is no respite by day or night, three and four hauls are made within the twenty-four hours. The only time allowed for eating and sleeping is during the odd hours snatched by the different classes of workers when their especial branch of service is suspended. When the hauls are not heavy the cleaners and salters have an easy time between landings. The boatmen sleep while the mules wind in the net; the mules browse and bray while the boats are out.
A first-class fishery employs from eighty to a hundred bipeds, and a dozen or twenty quadrupeds, and the labor during an active season of six weeks or two months is equal to that of a brisk military campaign in face of an enemy.
Of all the striking views of this exciting and picturesque business the night-haul is pre-eminent in interest. Here the lively scenes of the day are reenacted amidst the glare of pine torches, which exhibits the wild figures of the fishermen and the death-struggles of the finny captives in the most dramatic light possible.
Besides needing captains and crews, cleaners and packers, skilled seine menders were valued for keeping the seines, which had to be tarred, in top shape. Holes in a net meant lost profits. Coopers made barrels for storage. A manager attended to details on shore and sold to customers on the beach.
Even children who were hanging around would be put to work where needed; their pay would be a bucket of fish for supper. Regular workers were paid a share of the profits.
It was not uncommon to take a hundred thousand river herring in a haul, though most hauls were smaller, five thousand up to thirty thousand. Since it cost between five and ten thousand dollars to establish a fishery, only wealthy planters could afford the upfront costs. The vast majority of farmers gathered their fish for personal consumption in dip nets or bow nets.
Every river had its haul of fish, though uniqueness of terrain and flow created differences in the personalities of rivers.
By the end of the 19th century the herring and herring roe of Albemarle Sound had won widespread fame. In a world where herring fisheries ruled, Albemarle fisheries were king.
In a curious twist, settlers here — laboring mightily in an inhospitable but richly endowed land, living on the edge, isolated, self-reliant, insular — grew to have standing on the world map. Markets in New England, Europe, the Caribbean, even Russia eagerly sought their fish, their naval stores, their cotton and produce, their lumber.
We are fortunate today to have a rich photographic record of this era. During the 1870s the U.S Fish Commission sent scientists into the field to document fisheries nationwide. They produced a multi-volume report; the photographic collection is housed in Smithsonian Institution archives.
The North Carolina History Museum in Raleigh also houses archival photographs. Historian David Cecelski has reproduced many of these photographs in his blog posts about the herring fisheries. He tells an insider’s tale of coastal North Carolina life and fishing traditions.
And Then the Fish Stopped Coming
As far back as the 1840s, a few prescient people sensed that the fishery could not last under such colossal landings. But it did not occur to most people that there could ever be an end to this bonanza. They simply assumed they could count on these fish to arrive on time each year, in the millions, as expected, forever.
Even the eminent scientist, Thomas Huxley, president of the Royal Society in England, saw no reason for concern. I believe, then, that the cod fishery, the herring fishery…and probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible…(1883)
By 1896 0ver 1100 pound nets in Sound and rivers had replaced the labor-intensive haul seines, and fishermen were landing over 20 million pounds annually.
So many pound nets blocked passage of river herring that the state enacted the Vann Law in 1905 that required fishermen to leave a channel in the Sound to allow fish to migrate to their natal waters for spawning.
Still, the fishery continued to decline in the twentieth century. During the 1950s total catches were about 11 to 12 million annually. By the 1970s they had dropped to about 8 million, and in 1993 came the crash, down to one million.
Northeast North Carolina was not the only area that suffered losses. In 1965 the entire range of Atlantic states harvested over 64 million pounds. Forty years later total harvest for the combined area was under 100,000 pounds, almost a 99 percent decrease.
The fishery had died. In 2006 a moratorium on commercial fishing was declared in North Carolina. Three New England states, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, joined the moratorium, but other coastal states did not. The fish did not come back.
The demise of the river herring fishery has vast implications for life in the sea. It is, for instance, probably responsible for the weakening of the cod fisheries in New England and Canada.
The river herring, after all, is low man on the food chain. It is born to be eaten. Half of a herring’s year is spent out in the Atlantic Ocean, anywhere from Canada to South Carolina or Florida, being eaten by the big fish that count on the silvery slivers swimming in massive schools.
For eons the silver slivers have been dinner and dessert for big creatures of the ocean like cod. Without them and their cousins the food chain collapses and nobody gets dessert.
In the Albemarle river herring are the preferred food for the rockfish, or striped bass, another great Albemarle fishery whose story most appropriately belongs to the Roanoke River. Can you imagine the turmoil, the frenzy, the catching and losing, as river herring and striped bass jostle in that race of millions to find their particular spawning grounds?
Let us return for a moment to the first American settlements when tools were few and simple, and survival depended on the wit, skill, and hardiness of those early men and women.
The environment provided everything they needed if they learned its ways. And if the rains failed one season, or a drought or a flood came along, well, they would have to work harder, and they might lose anyway.
They were conservationists by default because they could tame the environment with only their sinew, and maybe a mule to help them along. They could not claim control over the land.
Then we developed bigger, more efficient tools, and the search for ease of living and profits replaced survival with two hands. (Can you blame us?)
We pursued technology that would control the environment and meet our needs and expectations. (Can you blame us?)
We thought our rational approach would solve problems, so we substituted that for an intimate understanding of wild ways, a knowledge that is only gradually acquired, with patience, a knowledge that doesn’t lend itself to committee meetings and graphing.
We set no boundaries. There was great good, but there was greed…
We lost touch with the ways of the land, and we did not know what we were losing. Not just here in the Albemarle but all over the country.
Progressive loss of touch and delight in progress undergird the loss of the river herring fishery–and many more losses.
When losses became too great, we woke up. We studied. Lots of studies. One is of particular interest because its scale had local and national focus.
Urged by a generation of activists who came along after the first Earth Day in 1970, farsighted congressmen took note of declines in fisheries across the country. In the 1980s they sponsored legislation that would fund major studies of estuaries.
The Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine Study (APES) was born. Scientists, government officials and private citizens cooperated to explore reasons — and seek solutions — for declining catches.
Turns out these little ten-inch-long fish that weigh half a pound have had the book thrown at them.
Here is how we messed up and how we are trying to reconcile the damage:
Decades of overfishing.
- In times past there was a balance between juveniles and older fish in schools of river herring.
- Juveniles need to wait three or four years before they can spawn, and their first year of spawning is usually only a warm-up.
- Older females become more and more productive with age and can release up to 100,000 eggs annually. However, they are exhausted after spawning and vulnerable to predators. They return to the ocean to recover and refuel.
- If you decimate either class, you lose the future. Hence the moratorium on commercial fishing for herring in 2oo6. It is still in place.
Activity in the Atlantic Ocean.
- During the late 1960s and early 1970s fleets of foreign trawlers with mammoth nets were intercepting herring out in the Atlantic Ocean on their way to the Sound, 24 million pounds caught in 1969 alone.
- In 1977 the Magnuson-Stevens Act forbade fishing within the 200-mile band of waters called the Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States.
Barricades block fish migration
- Nets once reached across rivers until regulated.
- Dams alter river flow.
- Streams are forced into culverts as roads are built across them.
- Today, where possible, bridges replace culverts and dam-flow is altered to aid spawning (with mixed results in the Roanoke River)
Loss of Habitat
- Wetlands ditched. Woodlands clear cut. Pavement laid down. Development favored.
- Streams rerouted. Riverbanks reworked.
- Rainwater that once seeped lazily into streams pulses unchecked into waterways that become an open fire hose flushing larvae and young fish.
- Today, permits are necessary for work done near water courses that are protected under the Clean Water Act. Not all of them are protected and permitting can be sketchy.
Pollution from Agriculture
- Sediment that runs off farms and construction sites clogs gills and buries larvae.
- Nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizer runoff cause algae to bloom. When algae die, they break down, robbing water of oxygen, causing fish kills. (A particular problem in the Chowan River).
- Best Management Practices (BMPs) used on farms and forests reduce runoff, minimize erosion.
- Integrated Pest Management on crops encourages farmers to use less pesticide (and saves them money, too.Algal blooms on the Chowan River
Pollution from Municipalities and industry
- Toxic organics, heavy metals, and oil from roads and parking lots.
- Nutrients, bacteria, heavy metals, and chemicals from the sewers of industries and cities.
- Updated treatment plants treat waste water from municipalities and industry. (Fortunately, minimal urban sprawl and industry here has limited pollutants.
The great herring catches are shadows now. We are trying to mend damages from two hundred years or more. We have removed too much critical habitat for the great fisheries to be reclaimed, but we have shifted toward conservation.
Wildlife refuges, state and county parks, and game lands protect land and provide habitat for wildlife and outdoor experiences for people.
People must feel that they have a stake in protecting the vitality of land and water, their land, their water. Public education must focus on developing an understanding of natural cycles and how we can live in harmony with them.
The Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership (APNEP) is doing just that as today’s successor to the original estuarine study (APES).
As its name implies, it partners with a variety of groups to support research, restoration and public education. It is a comprehensive approach to protecting our land and water.
This coastal plain where the rivers meet the sea is still compelling, still beautiful, still a respite for many. With care, it can continue to be so.