Burton on the Bay:
All the Little Fishes

It's tough life out there. Small fish eat tiny fish, big fish eat small fish, even bigger fish eat big fish - and fishermen target them all. It's a hell of a life.

		-Old fisherman's saying

To a fisherman, even one with a big ocean trawl, a million fish sounds awesome. He wouldn't dare think of a billion.

Yet one of the most important food fishes for coastal rockfish and many other species is a small fish known to congregate in schools with as many as a billion. They aren't big enough to catch with hook and line, and even when one reaches maximum size of 10 inches or more a baited hook wouldn't do much good because these fish, so important to the food chain, wouldn't be interested.

Welcome to the world of the Atlantic herring, a fish that feeds on plankton - and, curiously, in doing so feeds on other younger and small Atlantic herring, which in their early stages make up part of the plankton of the sea.

Perhaps we should know more about Atlantic herring because of their importance in the diet of the sports fish of the ocean. It's from the ocean that many of our popular sports fish originate or later live some, most or all of their lives.


Sorting Out Little Fish

Like menhaden, Atlantic herring stocks are depressed, but not as much as menhaden. Thankfully, in recent weeks we've heard the Atlantic menhaden picture might not be as bleak as feared previously.

It was figured they were in real trouble. As late as May, the coastal fleet's menhaden catch was off by as much as 50 percent - at a time when the Gulf catch was showing a moderate increase.

We are more familiar with menhaden hereabouts because the herring is more abundant in cooler waters farther north. We have more menhaden. They are the fish that come into the Chesapeake to - and not intentionally - feed the blues, rock, sea trout, cobia and Spanish mackerel. Presumably the tiny ones represent meals for hardheads and some of our other smaller popular fishes from the sea.

Menhaden are to sports fish as magnets are to iron and steel: they attract them with incredible force. Old-time fishermen look for schools of menhaden to lure fish into the Chesapeake Bay. To us, menhaden are too oily to consider in our diet, but they're what larger fish want: fat, which creates energy.

When and where menhaden are scarce, so are the fish we want to catch. That's one of the reasons menhaden are of such interest to anglers who use them for bait and for chum, and who pay the increasing price to get them when they head out on the water.

It's basically the same farther north with Atlantic herring whose scientific name is Clupea harengus, which isn't to be confused with our blueback herring also called the glut herring, the round herring, threadfin herring or the true alewife. The latter can make things confusing because hereabouts we call menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) "alewives," which they're not.

And I might add, the hickory shad is also considered a herring by the scientific community. Not so with the white shad, a legitimate sports fish now apparently making a comeback, especially on the Susquehanna.


Herring or Sardine?

Now that we've got that straightened out (hopefully), the Atlantic herring, also called the sea herring, is found on both sides of the Atlantic. It's present in ocean waters north of Cape Hatteras, with the biggest concentrations from Block Island to northern Labrador.

In my younger days, I yearned to chase the Atlantic herring, sailing the ocean on a commercial boat for a couple of reasons: It sounded exciting to be at sea for a week or more, sometimes for several weeks, and good catches promised good money seeing that the crew shared in profits.

I didn't get the opportunity until too late in life. There was always a waiting list for the herring fleet because of the money in it. When finally I was offered a slot, I was married, had several youngsters and a full-time job at the Sun, which wasn't too keen on its outdoor editor cruising the North Atlantic for a long spell in the chase for a fish of no catching interest to sports fishermen.

So my obit, whenever it is written, won't report that I worked the sardine fleet of the Atlantic. Yes, the sardine fleet. That's how most herring are marketed to consumers.

An Atlantic herring of three to five inches is sold as a sardine. Most are taken by fishermen out of Maine. They come to us packed in oil, mustard or tomato sauce, and I might add, they're very tasty though in taste and texture they can't match the true sardines that come from Norway and other countries thereabouts. There's also a big difference in the price. Probably most who buy the less expensive brands of sardines don't realize they're buying nothing more than miniature salted or pickled herring.

Larger Atlantic herring - which incidentally have incredible long lives for fishes of such abundance - are pickled or salted and sold as such, but they aren't nearly as popular or as tasty. Long lives of as much as 20 years if they evade the jaws of bigger fish of the Atlantic and the nets of sea-going watermen, of whom I would still be a regular customer had I not had my heart bypass nearly 10 years ago. Which prompts me to wonder why rockfish, blues and the like don't have clogged heart arteries considering all the oily, fat-producing herring and menhaden they consume.


Whatever You Call It, Still in Trouble

The Atlantic herring, a slimmed down version of our blueback variety, is in trouble for the same reason as the menhaden and many other species, including our sports fishes. Improved efficiency of commercial fleets with the latest in electronics and other gear makes the catching less of a gamble.

Also as other fishes of the seas diminish in numbers, the netters turn to those still available in large numbers - and let us not forget a canned sardine or pickled herring is more marketable than a menhaden under any name.

And herring are available in unbelievable numbers. In his short but interesting book The Incredible Atlantic Herring, Joseph Cook wrote they are known to gather in schools of over a billion individuals covering a six-mile area.

They spend their lives as they do when canned on a tin, thick as the proverbial sardine. In a school, there's little space between each fish, they're all of the same size, headed in the same direction, and all turn at the same time in precise formation without touching each other. The ones deep inside the pack have the best chance of evading predators.

Like other fish with deeply forked tails, they are speedsters, known to swim long distances at as much as 20 knots, which can be a challenge to a school of rockfish, but not a tuna, porpoise, bonito or the greedy finback whale. Or the net of an ocean-going trawler.

| Issue 29 |

Volume VII Number 29
July 22-28, 1999
New Bay Times

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