An Ode to Herring, Once NYC’s Most Abundant Fish
Can the city's fabled herring runs return?
3:05 PM EST on February 17, 2023
On a recent Saturday evening, I took my fishing rod to Canarsie Pier in Brooklyn, hoping to catch some Atlantic herring, one of the most abundant and (to me) delicious fish in the world.
New York City's saltwater fishing scene generally slows down in the colder months; the big striped bass have passed us by, and fluke and blackfish seasons are wrapped up. In the winter, if you're looking to fish, your best bet is to target the humble Atlantic herring, a "true herring" that spends its entire life in salt water. Unlike New York's river herring, which travel up the Hudson from the ocean to spawn in the spring, Atlantic herring enter New York's bays and estuaries in winter months, as long as water temperatures are low enough. Their range stretches north along Canada's shoreline and across the edge of the Arctic to northern European waters, where they still support an enormous commercial fishing industry and a robust culinary tradition.
Fishing for them, unless you have a big boat and a bigger net, calls for a Sabiki rig, an ingenious Japanese invention that resembles a string of Christmas lights. Bobbing it up and down imitates a school of tiny marine organisms. The idea is to provoke a frenzy and, ideally, hook multiple herring from a large school at once.
About 20 anglers were lined up along the west side of the pier, all of them fishing with Sabiki rigs. A few had added homemade, fish-shaped cuts of foil to the intervals between hooks, designed to resemble a herring chasing the lures.
Actual herring, however, were few and far between. An older fisherman named Igor smiled and puffed on a cigarette as he pulled up the first fish of the night. While Igor shook it off onto the pavement, his friend James extolled the health benefits of herring. "A lot of omega-3!" James proclaimed, adding, "My favorite part is the head."
Carlos, originally from Puerto Rico, was unimpressed by both the crowd and the fishing. "This is not the way it used to be," he said. "Before, everyone was lined up. Now there's almost no one. And one lousy fish! There's no comparison."
Here in Canarsie, Carlos said, the herring fishing has been slow in general this year. He blamed unseasonably warm water temperatures, and recalled colder winters, when the pier was crowded and people would pull up nine, ten fish on one line.
"It’s the environment," Carlos said. "It's gotta be."
The water has indeed been warm this year, a factor that could discourage Atlantic herring from moving in during the winter. But if the city's herring runs are in trouble, it wouldn't be the first time. Heavy industrialization, habitat destruction, pollution, and overfishing, as well as changing culinary tastes, have all over time subtracted herring from the city's waterways and dinner tables.
New York City was once rich in herring. A glance at the New York Public Library's archive of historical restaurant menus hints at their former prominence. In early 1900s New York, a herring-head like me would have been a kid in a candy shop. It came kippered, smoked, topped with fried eggs, broiled, in white wine, and in tomato sauce, to name just a few styles. If oyster stands were the seen on every downtown corner during the Gilded Age, then shad, a large river herring, was diner fare—right there on local restaurant menus alongside eggs and toast.
But herring didn't just disappear from local menus—they disappeared from the city's rivers, bays, and estuaries, too.
Well into the 20th century, New York had huge runs of river herring—blueback herring, alewives, hickory shad, and American shad, all of which swarmed up the Hudson to spawn each spring. During the winter, Atlantic herring would pour into the city's estuaries, congregating in enormous "herring shoals." For a while, New Yorkers caught these fish to the order of millions of pounds per year, creating steady work for the city's 15 curing houses, which smoked, pickled, brined, salted, and otherwise preserved everything that wasn't sold fresh, made into fertilizer, or used as bait.
One story that illustrates the scale of the abundance: In October of 1934, the New York Times reported that there was so much herring that fish were running through the city's sewers and spilling out of faucets in Bronx apartments. Records from the colonial period are even more jaw-dropping: People described rivers so packed with migrating herring that they appeared to run solid.
But as early as the 1890s, people who fished in New York Harbor were sounding the alarm—the industrial city was spilling coal oil and other contaminants into their precious estuary. Year after year, herring (as well as other sea creatures) began to disappear from New York. Today, while Atlantic herring are doing well enough to allow for fishing, populations of all of the city's river herring are so diminished that taking even one is prohibited. American shad, widely considered the most delicious fish in that family, is functionally extinct around New York.
"The shad went from a peak fishery of four million pounds in 1895, to zero in recent years," John Waldman, a writer and fish biologist at Queens College, told me. "It's the greatest conservation failure in the Hudson."
"Running Silver: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and Their Great Fish Migrations" is Waldman's account of the once-stunning mass movements of fish up and down East Coast rivers, and the current conservation efforts to resurrect them. It would be easy to assume that overfishing was behind these declines. (Herring wouldn't, after all, be the first sea creature we'd loved a little too much.) But according to Waldman, the industrialization of the Hudson and its watershed is largely to blame, especially for the loss of river herring. Up the Hudson, old dams and barriers are still choking fish out of their spawning habitats.
The loss of these fish is so staggering in scale, Waldman said, that it has affected our ability to even recall or comprehend the former abundance. "Each generation of managers takes what they're born into as the baseline and things slide, and the next generation comes in, and takes what's there, which is almost always less, as their baseline, and what you have is a ratchet, with lower and lower baselines," he explained, referencing a term—"shifting baseline syndrome"—coined by French scientist Daniel Pauly. "The point is, we don't know what's been lost."
Ultimately, if herring have a chance at returning, it will require removing the dams—a slow, expensive, and politically fraught endeavor. The payoff, if and when one is opened, can be relatively quick. Twenty years ago, Edwards Dam in Augusta, Maine, was removed, freeing large sections of the Kennebec River for the first time since 1937. Today, a few miles upriver in the town of Benton, locals celebrate an annual Alewife Festival every spring when the herring return to spawn. "That run," Waldman noted, "went from zero to four million in a couple of years."
The group Riverkeeper has been spearheading local efforts to remove dams along the Hudson. George Jackman, Riverkeeper's senior habitat restoration manager, estimates that in the Hudson River watershed alone, there are upwards of 2,000 dams that obstruct fish habitats.
"We're still finding dams that don't exist on any database," he said. "We call them ghost dams or legacy dams. They're too small to be regulated, but they're still a problem for fish."
Jackman attends community meetings, sits down with managing agencies at the state and federal level, and talks to landowners with old dams on their property. Not everyone is receptive. But Riverkeeper, where the habitat restoration program began in 2018, has completely removed three dams so far, and has a string of removal projects currently in the works. In the fall, the 25-foot high Maiden Lane Dam in Cortlandt, New York will come down, opening up a mile and a half of Furnace Brook to herring and other fish in the Hudson. Conservationists have reason to be hopeful, even about the removal of these smaller dams. In 2016, a dam was removed near Troy, New York, opening up a stream called Wynants Kill for the first time in 85 years—within days, there were thousands of river herring entering the system to spawn.
The benefits of restoring those runs would go far beyond my personal desire to snack on herring caught in the Hudson River. In addition to being good for people, herring are one of the baitfish that undergirds the marine food web, consumed by just about everything else in and around the waters they inhabit, from larger fish to birds like eagles and egrets.
As for my recent herring fishing excursion, I struck out, although I wasn't alone. The fish just weren't around in large numbers. Some herring gulls that had been waiting around for their namesake food source gave up, apparently as unimpressed as Carlos with the fishing, and flew off toward Shirley Chisholm State Park. When I'd had enough, I said my goodbyes and walked back along the water. I wish I could say that my next stop was Tatiana's, in Brighton Beach, a restaurant where a herring lover can still sit down with some briny herring filets and a glass of cold vodka, but an hour or so later, I was at a friend's apartment—and eating pizza.
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