John Hay, a talented observer of the natural world and of Cape Cod most especially, had this to say about Springtime and herring in his classic book The Run:
"That original source of energy the sun, which men might still worship in good faith, was bringing out new facets to shine abroad. The web of life was stretching to its light. Birds, insects, plants, and fish were beginning to move to its changing measure; though if some days were warm with a budding, fringing, easing expectation, others were still raw, wet, and contracting, bringing winter back to flesh and fiber. We kept looking for the alewives. Cars would slow up at the Herring Run. The drivers peered down to see the curving, dark forms of a few fish holding up against the current. Then they drove on. Or they got out, saw nothing, and went away in disappointment. But suddenly one morning toward the middle of April the crowd of alewives had so increased as to cause an inescapable excitement in the vicinity. The water was thick with fish, their fins showing on the surface. It was almost as it had been a hundred years before when the whole population would cry out at their coming, 'The herring are running!'"
I can remember runs like that, when the narrow channel of the Agawam River in Wareham was a solid shoal of bluebacked fish, holding steady in the rush of water and taking the right fork toward the flume, and the fish ladder that would hoist them in brave and lightning leaps to their spawning ground upriver in Glen Charlie Pond. Osprey move up the coast with the fish as each stream in turn, a degree or two warmer than the waters of their bays and inlets, beckons the herring in from the sea. But while the osprey have made a dramatic return to the East Coast after the near collapse of this species due to DDT poisoning, the herring, alewife and shad are in sad and sharp decline.
I looked eagerly across the parking lot at the Elks Lodge in East Wareham today and saw there was no one at the herring run. That was a bad sign, for at this time of year there should be a herring warden, at least, and locals pulling up with buckets for their allotment of fish dipped with nets from below the falls. My Uncle Colin used to keep them salted to bait his lobster traps, and old Cape Codders used to fork reeking wagonloads of fish onto their fields each spring. This year Massachusetts waters are closed for herring season. There just aren't enough fish returning to the rivers for a sustainable catch.
Massachusetts enacted a three year moratorium on possession or harvest of river herring (alewife and blueback herring species) through 2008. As I gazed at the base of the fish ladder below the flume, I could see the sleek gunmetal forms of herring beneath the water, piling up in the plunging current. There were perhaps a a hundred fish, and one attempted the lower sections of the ladder as I watched with that same remembered thrill of my youth at this same spot. In a heavy run there are tens of thousands of fish. I wished these few well on their journey.
The Agawam River is not a long one, but it is crossed by several highways and suffers from excessive nitrogen runoff from septic systems and lawn fertilizer. The river is less hospitable to alewife and herring, and so, too is the deeper water at sea where adults mature before making the spring migration back to the run to spawn. It is these fish that are major sources of food for our toothed whales and countless other species in the marine food web. Their loss is a loss of more than just a piece of our heritage and a much anticipated harbinger of Spring.
Again, John Hay:
"(W)hen I first saw these fish I was moved in spite of myself. Instinct is no more blind than wonder. To have the human attributes of mind and spirit and the race's ability to control its own environment does not give me the wit to beat the infinitely various will of life at its own game. All I could wish for would be to join it."