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Herrings

Note: This article first appeared in the April 1993 issue of The Conservationist magazine. Recently updated. Authors- Eileen C. Stegemann & Douglas Stang. Twelfth in a 14-part series describing the Freshwater Fishes of New York.

The Herring Of New York

It's the beginning of April. Early spring in New York State, the forsythia is in bud and much is happening in our waters. From out of the ocean, the first of the herring are finding their way home. After having spent many years out at sea, their strong instinct guides them back to the freshwaters where they were hatched.

Unusual among other New York freshwater fish, herring are anadromous, meaning they spend the bulk of their lives in the ocean and only return to freshwater to reproduce. Each year they return, migrating up large rivers in huge spawning runs.

The first to arrive are the graybacks, known to most people as alewives. They come by the thousands, swimming the miles quickly and darting past sluggish river fish just waking from their winter's nap.

Not long after, the tiny blooms of white shadbush greet the schools of shad making their way upstream. Their silvery iridescent scales are shaded with blue and green, the colors of spring. The shad come in waves, strong with the tide, slowing only a short while to taste the sweetness of the freshwater after the salt of the sea. They press on north in the rivers.

Last to arrive are the bluebacks. They are greeted by the warming waters of spring. The bluebacks seem to signal the lilacs to bloom, which add their purple and white colors to the river banks.

The annual arrival of spawning herring has made them important commercial and recreational fish species. Each spring fisherman head out to catch their share of these tasty fish.

In New York State, the Hudson River is the largest river entirely within state borders that is home to all members of the herring family. Freshwater portions of New York's Delaware River also receive herring runs, but only after the fish have traveled through bordering states. In addition, limited alewife runs also occur in smaller estuaries on Long Island.

Description

Herring are silvery iridescent in color with hints of pearly white, blue and purple, green, and yellow. They have large black spots on their sides which contrast with the silver.

Herring are built for speed, slender and slick. Sharp scales located along the edge of the belly give them their nickname "sawbellies." While species of herring are difficult to tell apart, look close for the details: a difference in body size, shape of the jaw, and size of the eye.

Reproduction

As stated before, most herring are anadromous, spending the bulk of their lives in the ocean and only returning to freshwater to reproduce or spawn. This ability to move between salty ocean water and freshwater is no small feat, it is tremendous stress on their bodies. The fish are here to spawn and do not eat for the eight to ten weeks this process takes. Surprisingly, only a few never make it back to the ocean.

When spawning begins, millions upon millions of tiny specks of golden-green eggs are released to drift with the currents. Adult fish return to the ocean; no parental care is given either the eggs or the young. Of the millions of eggs released, only a few will survive.

By midsummer, young herring look like small versions of their parents. They swim together in huge schools where there is safety in numbers. Often, these young herring swim along shore, moving in response to the brightness of the sun. On calm evenings, they give themselves away, leaping out of the water and snapping at tiny insects at the water's surface.

As fall approaches and the rivers' water cools, these young fish head out to sea. They remain there for several years before returning to spawn in the water where they spend their first months of life.

Feeding

Herring are plantivorous, feeding on the zooplankton (tiny animals) floating in the water. Because of the small size of the zooplankton, it takes millions of these critters to fill the herring up.

Specialized "combs" in the fish's throat (called gill rakes) enable herring to strain the tiny plankton from the water while swimming along. Larger herring eat other food as well, including larger larvae, small insects, shrimp, and even small fish.

Fishing

Ocean-run herring grow to a size that provides fun for the angler. While the season is short, only six to eight weeks each spring, anglers enjoy catching these fish.

American shad are the best known sport fish of the herring. They put up a good fight when hooked - the trick is in getting one to strike. The smaller herring - alewife, blueback herring, and hickory shad - can also be caught on a hook and line, but more often are caught by small scap (or dip) nets.

Most herring are highly valued by the commercial fishing industry, with American shad the favorite food fish. American shad are sweet in taste and the eggs or roe are considered a spring delicacy. Alewife and blueback herring are fished commercially in the ocean and used for pickling.

American Shad

Picture of American shad
click for larger image

The largest of New York's herring, American shad are very important commercial and sportfish along the Atlantic coast. Their large size and long jaw, which extends to behind their eye, distinguishes them from other members of the herring family.

In the ocean, American shad are found along the eastern coast of North America, from Florida to as far north as the Gulf of St. Lawrence in northeastern Quebec. New York's shad are from stocks in the Hudson and Delaware rivers and are part of what is called the mid-Atlantic population. This population has a migratory range of thousands of miles along the Atlantic coast.

In late spring, New York's shad head north along the coast to spend the summer in the Bay of Fundy. Toward fall, they begin their migration south, wintering off the coast of North Carolina and Virginia. In spring, the northward cycle begins again. At this time, adult fish that are ready to spawn split off from the main group and head toward their home river.

The habits of American shad in the ocean are not well known. Shad can spend up to four or five years at sea before returning to their natal waters to spawn. It is thought that these fish move off the coast toward the edge of the Continental Shelf.

During spawning, shad arrive in large schools, running up the rivers where they slowly adjust to the change from salt to fresh water. While a large number of American shad run up into the Delaware River, the biggest run on the east coast goes into the Hudson River Estuary. Historically, shad were also found in New York State's portion of the Susquehanna River, as far upstream as Binghamton. However, large hydropower dams built in the 1920s currently prevent these fish from reaching this portion of the Susquehanna.

New York's American shad have been experience a severe reduction in the numbers of shad that are returning to our rivers, especially the Hudson River. For this reason, all fishing for American shad, including catch and release, is prohibited in the Hudson River. Shad fishing is still allowed in the Delaware river, but the numbers of shad that can be harvested are severely restricted.

Fishing for shad on the Delaware River is different than what was historically possible on the Hudson River. Because the upper Delaware is much smaller and clearer than the Hudson, shad are more visible to the angler. Casting small spinners or kissing darts off the bottom of clear pools and runs is often successful. Shad can also be taken by fly fishing. Best fishing occurs in the lower East Branch and the main stem from Port Jervis to Hancock.

Ocean-run Alewife

Picture of ocean-run alewife
click for larger image

Like American shad, alewife is an important commercial fish species on the Atlantic coast. Adults average ten to 14 inches in length and weigh less than a pound. Although they look similar to other small herring, their large eyes and deep body easily identify them. Alewives have a short jaw that juts out when the mouth is closed.

Spawning occurs in early spring when large schools of alewives move into tidal waters from the ocean. These spawning runs begin slowly with only a few fish at a time migrating in. As more fish arrive, they remain along the shore in the main rivers. Spawning fish can often be seen swirling about in small groups.

Young alewives are often hard to find, as they hide in weedy beds and deep water during the day. Like shad, as fall approaches they leave the estuary and migrate out to the ocean.

Alewives are found all along the eastern Atlantic Ocean from Newfoundland to North Carolina. They follow the same general pattern of migration as shad, moving north in early summer and south in the fall. These fish spend two to three years at sea before returning home to spawn. It is thought that they move off the east coast and wander over most of the Continental Shelf.

In New York, a large run of ocean-run alewives occurs in the Hudson River and its tributaries each spring. Smaller runs occur in tidal creeks along Long Island.

Although bony, ocean-run alewives are valued for pickling by many fisherman. In addition, scapping (or dip-netting) for alewives is part of some people's spring ritual. Large square or round nets are lowered into the creeks where alewives run and the fish are scooped up as they swirl about above the net. For the conventional angler, a combination of light tackle and a smaller version of the shad dart in white, yellow, or chartreuse can be used to catch these fish.

Unique among New York's herring, the alewife has also developed a separate landlocked form of the species. The landlocked alewife is an important bait and prey fish in the Great Lakes, Finger Lakes, and numerous reservoirs in New York State's inland waters. Details on the landlocked alewife are found in a previous article in The Conservationist, entitled Common Prey Fish in New York. The article appeared in the September-October 1992 issue.

Blueback Herring

Picture of blueback herring
click for larger image

Blueback herring are similar in appearance to alewives. Like alewives, these fish have a short jaw, but unlike alewives, bluebacks have a small eye. If a blueback herring is gutted, the black body cavity lining is another distinguishing feature.

Blueback herring are the last herring to arrive in New York's estuaries, from mid-May to June. While they used to be found only in tidal portions of the Hudson River and its tributaries, in recent years bluebacks have expanded their range (via travel through locks of the Barge Canal System) to include the upper Hudson (above the Troy dam) and Mohawk rivers. A few fish have been reported in Lake Champlain, Oneida Lake, and some have traveled through to Lake Ontario.

Blueback herring are found all along the eastern Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia to Florida. They follow the same general pattern of migration as other herring, moving north in the early summer and south in the fall.

Bluebacks are also similar to alewives in that they spend two to three years at sea before returning to their natal waters to spawn. It is thought that they also move off the coast and use the Continental Shelf as their home range in the sea.

Bluebacks are an important commercial fish along the Atlantic coast. They are valued for pickling by commercial and recreational fishermen alike. Scapping in the tributaries to the Hudson River and in the Mohawk River is the main method of fishing for these ten to 14 inch herring. Angling can be successful in areas where these fish concentrate, such as below any dams in mid to late May. In the Mohawk River, young bluebacks have become an important forage fish for valued game fish such as smallmouth bass and walleye. Adult bluebacks in spring make excellent bait for striped bass.

Hickory Shad

Picture of hickory shad
click for larger image

Although smaller, hickory shad are similar in appearance to American shad with a lower jaw that noticeable juts out. They are abundant in New England coastal waters and in the Chesapeake. They are not very common in the waters in between, which includes New York State.

Each year, New Yorkers catch a few hickory shad, usually in early summer in the lower Hudson River Estuary. It is thought that these herring spawn in freshwater, but not much is known about how many actually migrate into New York waters.

Herring and People

Herring are some of the few freshwater fish species in New York State that have a commercial value, as well as a recreational value. Since long before colonial days, people have used and relied upon the large annual spawning runs of herring as an important source of food. This remains true today, with the state's commercial fishery for river herring and shad on the Hudson River.

While spawning runs of herring still provide us with recreational enjoyment, as well as food, the years have brought many changes to these fish populations. With European settlement and industrialization along our river corridors came pollution. Even more devastating to our herring stocks was the construction of huge cement hydroelectric dams that greatly reduce the suitable spawning and nursery habitat available to these fish.

One of the largest rivers to experience such effects was the Susquehanna. Beginning in the 1920s, a series of dams were built on the lower river starting at river mile 10 in Maryland. This construction closed off one of the largest rivers used by American shad. Historically, these fish traveled as much as 300 miles inland from Chesapeake Bay to spawn at Binghamton, New York. With the dams in place, fewer and fewer fish came back each year.

Realizing that a valuable resource had been lost, state and federal agencies began to work with the power companies to see what could be done to rectify the situation. They began a restoration effort to bring shad back to their former range. A fish lift was built to move spawning fish around the lower dam; however, few fish were left from the original Susquehanna stock.

To enhance the restoration effort, young shad were stocked in the Susquehanna River above Harrisburg, beginning in 1971. Over the years, eggs have been collected from the Hudson, Delaware, Chesapeake and several other river systems to provide young shad for the Susquehanna. The stocking program has had steady success with increasing numbers of adult shad now returning to the Susquehanna to spawn. Fish passage facilities have been installed in lower Susquehanna at hydro facilities allowing American shad to swim upstream.

While the population of herring will probably never be the huge numbers of before, it is encouraging to see that such restoration efforts can have a positive effect. These efforts serve as examples to show us that if we are going to succeed, private industry and state agencies need to continue to work together in providing stewardship of our valuable resources.

Scientific Names

Many species of fish look alike, making it difficult to tell them apart. In addition, many types of fish have different common names in different parts of the country. To distinguish one organism from another, biologists give each a scientific name that is unique to that organism. The names are derived from the Latin language and consist of a genus and a species. The genus name is first and is capitalized. The species is second and is in lower case. Both the genus and species are either underlined or italicized when written. While several organisms in the same "family" share a common genus name (like family members sharing a last name), they have different species names. Occasionally, two members of a family are so similar that one is considered a subspecies of the other. In these cases, the organisms are given two species names. Here are the common and scientific names of New York State's herring:

Scientific Names of Fish Species
Common Name Scientific Name
American shad Alosa sapidissima
alewife Alosa pseudoharengus
blueback herring Alosa aestivalis
hickory shad Alosa mediocris

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