Ecological Biomass

March 24, 2011

TGH came across an epic Herring-centric video clip within the BBC program, Nature’s Great Events. A particular episode, entitled ‘Nature’s Great Feast’, touched on the concept of how some living organisms (like Herring) have learned to group together to defend their species against the many predators they face.

Now, herring may be of a diminutive size, but along with swimming in massive schools, they also have a number of other Darwinian tricks up their proverbial sleeves (gills?) that help them avoid becoming supper in the wild.  One of these naturally selected traits is an obvious reason for  their nickname, “silver of the sea” or “silver darlings”.  Herring have an incredibly effective camouflage that uses embedded crystals within their bodies to create a glistening effect, mesmerizing would-be prey and keeping them concealed in the glistening currents.

Herring may have a pseudo cloaking effect and seek to find power in numbers, but those strategems only go so far.  Nature always has her trump card, and it’s often at the top of the food chain as you’ll see at the :40 mark of this footage.

Check mate.

Herring season has kicked off in the waters around Vancouver, British Columbia, though while local fishermen report that there are plenty of herring to be caught, apparently this year’s run of silver darlings are on the tiny side.

That means that commercial ‘seiners’,  large boats that corral entire schools of fish into their purse-like nets, are rendered useless–the tiny herring are too small for their nets!

With the seiners down for the count,  ‘gill netters’, local fishermen with comparatively smaller boats (and likewise smaller nets) can get a leg up on the herring fishery.

Tiny fish means less profits however, and these local, hard working Herring fishermen invest much time and resources in their efforts to get a taste of the silver darlings.

The bulk of West Coast herring are usually procured immediately (and with gusto) by the Japanese market, likely sent overnight to Tsukiji Market in Tokyo to be sold to the very next morning.  This is no usual week for Japan, however.  As the nation and its allies struggle to manage the fallout from the Tsunami that struck eastern Honshu last week, Japan’s economy and infrastructure has been torn and frayed.   As the sun will surely rise tomorrow, the Japanese people will also recover from their current predicament.  In the meantime, Vancouver’s herring fishermen can only hope for the best.

The socio-economic implications of the natural disaster that struck Japan are far-reaching indeed.  So far reaching in fact, that the local herring fisherman of British Columbia have lost (albeit temporarily) their primary buyer of the fish that supplies their livelihood.  Perhaps this blog will inspire some more Americans to eat domestic herring and help these fishermen out!

If you’re in a pinch for a good way to prepare herring, I’d recommend you listen to the words of wisdom spoken by the gentleman featured at the 2:00 mark in the below video clip…”salt ’em, pickle ’em, make rollmops and all kinda schtuff!”

Plight of the Alewife

March 14, 2011

Since 2002, states along the East Coast have all experienced dramatic declines in river herring populations.  

As a measure of protection towards offsetting this decline, The Department of Environmental Protection today announced that the prohibition on the taking of Alewives and blueback herring from most inland and marine waters of the State of Connecticut has been extended for another year. 

What is an Alewife you ask?  Commonly dubbed River Herring, Sawbelly, Gaspereau, Golden Shad and even Gray Herring, this herring doppelganger’s true identity is well known to latin-speaking marine biologists worldwide: Alosa Pseudoharengus (pseudo “false”, harengus “herring”).

In a side-by-side comparison, you’ll see how similar these species are.  It’s very difficult to separate Alewife from blueback herring without rolling up your sleeves and digging in…literally.  As you can see, the lining of an Alewife is pale to lightly pigmented while that of a blueback’s is jet black.   Interior color notwithstanding, Alewives, like Herring, are eaten fresh, dried, smoked, or fried and their eggs (roe) are considered a delicacy.

Let it be said that humans aren’t the only ones that enjoy a tasty snack in Alewives and Herring.  These river-dwellers constitute a significant food source for indiginous marine gamefish, as well as osprey, bald eagle, harbor seals, porpoise, egrets, kingfishers and river otter.  That’s a big reason why protecting the species is of vital importance.

As the constant reader will know, these fish species are anadromous, which means they hatch in freshwater, migrate to the ocean to grow, then return to freshwater to spawn. 

Historically, millions of river herring returned to Connecticut rivers and streams each year.  In 1985, over 630,000 blueback herring passed over the Holyoke Dam, on the Connecticut River. By 2006, only 21 passed the Holyoke Dam (Massachusetts), the lowest number in the history of the Holyoke Fishlift. Last year that number had risen only to 76.  

While the reasons for these historically low levels (and the methods by which these levels are ascertained) are not fully understood, the importance of protecting river herring runs as a means of conserving the indigenous ecosystem is clear. 

Kudos to the acting DEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Frechette for making inroads to this cause and taking the initiative to extend the fishery closure and long live the good herring!

Squelettes se disputant un hareng saur

Squelettes se disputant un hareng saur

BurgerBoy and BurgerGal, nestled together in the corner of some dark cafe somewhere in Paris, perhaps amidst a rising cloud of blue-tinted Gauloises smoke, sent a snapshot via email from across the pond this fine Friday morning. 

Evocative of the classic Van Gogh painting ‘skull with cigarette’ (the most distinguished of his paintings from the Antwerp period), this painting here portrays two skeletons locked in mortal combat over–yes, you guessed-it–a herring!

It’s amazing that BurgerBoy noticed this element.  Herring aren’t exactly on your average Joe’s radar, but it’s interesting how once a person becomes sensitized to something (eg: herring), their mind changes the way it filters impressions, and suddenly, that thing you’ve recently been made aware of seems to appear all the time in different places.   Advertisers love this, of course.

Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘perceptual vigilance’, and it’s something we can all pretty much relate to.  That said, I encourage readers to send in any picture or mention of a herring they find in their travels.  I’d be happy to post them!

We salute your perceptual vigilance BurgerBoy.  Vive le France!!!!!

Hound on the trail

In the 1997 edition of Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Robert Hendrickson traces the roots of the phrase “Red Herring” back to escaping criminals in the 17th century who would “drag strong-smelling red herring across a trail to make pursuing blood-hounds lose the scent”.

The raison d’etre of this blog, however, will not be to deter seekers from their prize.  Instead, The Good Herring—a digital forum to share and expound upon my favorite food, travel, music, art and cultural experiences and observances—will aim to promote awareness of all manners of things I consider to be, in essence: good!

“OK, I get the premise, but what’s with the herring?” You might ask.  Well, modern public perception of herring here in America is, in general, poor at best.  I’d venture to bet the majority of my peers would turn their noses up at the prospect of eating one of these fine fish.  Nobody put it better than the Kipperman himself, Mike Smylie, in his book, Herring: A History of the Silver Darlings, when he said (and I paraphrase), that herring are generally considered to be the smelly, bony, unpalatable and undesirable food of the poor, a fish of necessity, the epicurean pariah of the sea.  The contradiction however, as his fine historical account explains in detail, lies in the fact that the socio-economic and cultural impact of these noble creatures on Western European and American history is palpable, and wholly positive.

Sliver Darlings

As Europe emerged from the dark ages and northern populations began to soar, herring was realized to be a plentiful (albeit highly perishable) source of food.  Once the means to curing and preserving these fish was discovered, the grand herring roll-out began in earnest.  Fishermen subsequently learned how to catch them in droves with ever increasing skill.  The booming industry employed droves of men and women.  In fact, 1-in-4 Brits were employed in the herring industry in the early 1800’s.  Herring helped sustain the poor and feed armies…it could easily be said that these tiny fish helped changed the face of European history.

All those compelling points aside, the bottom line people might be able to relate to best is that herring have a bum rap for not tasting good.  In fact, that fallacy is a ‘red herring’ in every sense of the idiom: herring are not only delicious, you’d have to look hard for a fish offering better nutritional value!

We’ll be talking more about the benefits of herring, of course, but in the meantime, let it be said that I bid you welcome and invite you to feel good about following the accounts presented here at “The Good Herring”.