“We have come to fish for the herring-fish; That live in this beautiful sea; Nets of silver and gold have we,” Said Wynken, Blynken, And Nod – Eugene Field (1850-1895)
This is a quote from the first stanza of a classic poem for children, to be read by their parents, to help them fall asleep with wonderful and beautiful thoughts about the sea. The herring are the co-stars of this poem; indeed, they are described as the little stars in the twinkling foam for which the three fishers, Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, cast their silver and gold nets from the wooden shoe in which they are sailing.
It is a poem not of hunting and exploitation, but of harmony. While the moon laughs and sings, the herring cry out to the fishers, “Now cast your nets wherever you wish, – Never afraid are we!” The trip is so perfect that “some folk thought ‘twas a dream they dreamed of sailing that beautiful sea.” So let us, for a few moments, listen “while Mother sings of wonderful sights that be,” that we may also understand the beautiful things that exist where “the old shoe rocked the fishermen three.”
It is fitting that the herring be among the leading characters in this poem. The Atlantic herring, the herring that inhabits the sea off the coast of Nova Scotia, is one of the most abundant fish species in the world. They are a schooling fish, and it has been estimated that schools can be as large as 4 cubic kilometers and contain 4 billion fish. The species occurs on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Herring can grow up to 45 centimeters in length and up to 1.1 kilograms in weight. However, it is the juvenile herring, as small as 4-5 centimeters and called sardines, that many of us may know the best.
The Atlantic herring is considered a “keystone” species in the marine ecosystem. A keystone species is analogous to the keystone in a stone arch; remove the keystone and the arch collapses. Removing a keystone species from an ecosystem results in a dramatically different ecosystem or its total collapse. Why are herring so important that without them we would not have a sea anything like we know today?
Herring are the first link in the food chain between small organisms and larger ones. When they are very young, herring eat phytoplankton (microscopic plants floating in the sea). As they grow older, herring eat zooplankton (microscopic animals in the water), small fish, and fish larvae. Thus herring, given their large numbers, are crucial in converting all these microscopic organisms into a form that can be consumed by larger animals.
Because of this, herring are also known as a forage fish. They are an important food source for cod, pollock, haddock, silver hake, white hake, sharks, five species of whales, 3 species of dolphins, seals, and marine birds. A study on the northeast coast of the United States showed fish, marine mammals, and birds ate 30,000 metric tonnes of herring per year, the equivalent of about 50% of the commercial fishery harvest in that area. Therefore, as the sun and ocean nutrients produce huge amounts of microscopic plants and animals, herring are like billions of little factories making food for the larger life forms in the ocean.
For us living in the Tri-county area, herring have also been a source of food for us since time immemorial. Since herring come close to shore, they have been easily available. They are a very good source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, and vitamins B12 and D, while being relatively low in mercury. Herring have also been a driver of economic growth for the Tri-counties since the middle of the 19th Century. Herring was the source of bait for the cod fisheries during the golden age of sail, and throughout the history of the lobster fishery. Herring products manufactured locally, such as kippers, “digby chicks”, herring roe, canned sardines, and fresh and frozen whole herring have been shipped throughout the world from our shores.
Herring landings from our region (Southwest NS/Bay of Fundy) peaked in the late 1960s when up to 225,000 metric tonnes were brought ashore per year. But the herring quota for this region in 2018 was only 42,500 tonnes. Scientists have expressed concerns about the low herring population levels and have implemented a plan for rebuilding. Hopefully, we will restore the harmony in the seas that was experienced by Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. May we rest assured that it was not just a dream we dreamed and will hear again the cry of the herring: “Now cast your nets wherever you wish, – never afraid are we.”