HERRING are small, but were once very big, so big that at the turn of the century, when the fish began their annual spring spawning runs upstream in the rivers that flow into the ocean, the mercantile buzzing of coastal New England mill towns came to a halt and was replaced with a carnival atmosphere. Schools closed, and "gone fishin' " signs were not even considered.
To a lesser extent, this spring pageant played out from maritime Canada, south to Cape Cod, and on to Chesapeake Bay, bringing with it the seasonal renewal of hope. As if by magic it delivered free of charge a silver stream of food, bait, fertilizer, and the staple of every Yankee farmer - cash. A good day's pay for a good night's work. While the men lugged full seines from widened fish pounds, children knelt by the edge of streams and snatched what they could with nets and bare hands.
Most coastal farmsteads had smokehouses, and by mid-May rows of herring hung, pinned with a sweet apple stick and flavored with smoldering hickory and fruitwood. Jars of loose-packed herring, spiced and pickled, were stored in the cool, damp root cellars. Roe was fried every night for a month.
"Take out a map of Cape Cod or anywhere in New England and find all the herring `thises' and `thats' and you'll get the picture of its historical importance. It wasn't scallops or oysters or even cod that made the mainstay of the Cape in those days. It was the herring," says Rick Karney, a Massachusetts marine biologist on Martha's Vineyard. And, says Mr. Karney, after the flesh was used as food and fertilizer, factories processed the fish scales into pearls. Herring was the gem of 19th-century Cape Cod.
But in a few generations, the commercial status as food plunged. Overfishing, pollution, and, in particular, the damming of spawning rivers and streams have all but eliminated the river herring from the marketplace.
According to a survey by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Game, in 1896 more than 150 million pounds were harvested and sold for food in the region - and at least twice as much was given away before processing. So few herring are harvested at today's runs that state officials could not even guess at a figure.
THE closest a shopper will get to an inshore herring in a supermarket is in the pet-food aisle - and those are caught in open ocean long before the inland migration. The many brands of pickled herring come from a strictly oceanic species of fish, not the New England river runners.
"The inshore herring fishery was always a renegade. Even in its boom days, it would be hard to accurately guess at the millions of tons harvested. There wasn't a lot of record keeping, but I bet it was something truly unbelievable all right, measured in mountains, not tons," says Joseph DiCarlo of the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife on Cape Cod. But, explains Mr. DiCarlo, although herring has lost its commercial and historical prominence, its fundamental position in the food chain make s it one of the key building blocks for the entire fishing industry.
"Their greatest value is without a doubt as food for larger predatory fish: haddock, cod, pollack, blues, and bass - you name it. And I'd go so far as to say that the decline of the offshore fisheries is directly tied to the decline of our herring. It's a little like knocking out the bricks in the basement and expecting the building to still stand," he says.
"I couldn't say that people were any less greedy 100 years ago than they are today, but at least they were limited by the weakness of their own backs. Now these factory ships out on George's Bank [off the coast of Massachusetts] can take a million pounds in a single set [one catching cycle], and most of it just goes for fertilizer."
Congressman Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts described the condition on George's Bank as bankrupt, citing factory ships as the prime cause of what he called a "biological disaster."
"Ironically, we are the victim of our own success. More boats and sophisticated technology have given our fish stocks little chance to recover," says Mr. Studds.
Landings of cod, haddock, and flounder in New England are less than half of what they were a decade ago, and a quarter of what they were in the 1960s, despite a doubling of the number of boats fishing. As an indicator of this decline, Massachusetts Fisheries biologist Greg Skomal says that haddock provide the most dramatic example.
"In 1965, George's Bank produced 150,000 metric tons of haddock. By 1980, it had fallen to 17,000 tons. In 1988, only 2,500 tons were taken, and this year I wouldn't be surprised if the figure fell below 1,000. In 1978, 650 vessels were after haddock and now there's about 1,000," he says.
"More and more we are understanding the need to regulate not just a single species but rather manage the whole chain - including lower fish like herring.
Salmon are set in literature as the metaphor for courage and perseverance. Herring are set in traps as lobster bait because they stink.
But in anthropomorphic terms, the upstream migration of the herring is no less heroic. The herring must endure marauding schools of bluefish, bass, haddock, and cod, escape nets the size of football fields at sea, and slip through narrow streams blocked with wire gates in order to make their natal spawning ponds on time. For the herring, they get this coming and going, for three seasons, sometimes longer. The salmon, on the other hand, make but one run, then die.
Buddy and Alfred Vanderhoop have worked the Gay Head herring run on the island of Martha's Vineyard for almost 20 years. Far from industrial areas and consistently tended, the run is an anomaly. The catch is down but not out.
"I can remember once when for weeks at a time the fish were as thick as can be. We'd seine out truckloads. It's just not the same anymore. Back then you'd get three, maybe four cents a pound. But it worked out to be a decent day's pay. You could get 60,000 pounds in two tides, enough to fill a tractor trailer. Now, 10,000 is doing pretty good," says Buddy.
Buddy explains that after heavy rains the herring are more plentiful. His observation is consistent with biologists' theories that herring navigate back to breed in natal ponds using the sense of smell. Minute amounts of sediment dissolved in the outgoing water apparently trigger a herring homing mechanism.
"When it's raining hard the salinity changes, the temperature changes, and the extra water from the runoff pulls in more mud and sediment. That seems to attract the fish," says Alfred.
The changes may be subtle, if not imperceptible to humans, but to herring it is a wake-up call to come home and mate.
The Vanderhoop brothers say that interest in herring roe by Japanese and Taiwan markets is growing. They hope this will give a boost to the traditional industry and provide a needed financial incentive to restore hundreds of neglected herring runs.
With federal and state grants, nearly 100 abandoned runs are now being refurbished throughout New England, according to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries.
"It would be ironic if it were the Japanese, thousands of miles away, who give us the kick in the pants to take care of our runs again here at home," Buddy says.