Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Harbor Seals and Fishing Bays

    “There is a fishing technique of the historic period that very likely traces its origin to precolonial times. By “closing off a cove,” fishermen allow the rising tide to bring large numbers of migratory fish, such as alewives, into a shallow bay with a constricted opening. Once the tide is full, the narrow passageway is closed with a net. As the bay empties in the ebb tide, the fish are trapped inside. Harvesting then becomes a simple matter of wading out in the bay and picking up the fish lying in the mud.

    At the same time that the tidewater creeks were bubbling with alewives, great contingents of American shad, a much larger herring, were arriving from the sea. These fish chose to run upriver to freshwater and spawned in the main stem. Today this occurs from approximately RM 85 to RM 145. (River miles (RM) are measured from the southern tip of Manhattan Island.) Adult shad can reach thirty inches in length and can weigh twelve pounds. With few exceptions, these millions of large herring are content to be in the main river and are of little consequence to the spawning going on in the tributaries (Figure 1.3.).
     Preservation of these fish for future use, if taken in large numbers, would be paramount. The further upriver they were taken, the less practical using salt from the sea to preserve them would have been. Remains of smoking platforms for shad and herring of the past have been found along the river, amidst millions of tiny bones and scales. Among contemporary shad and herring smokers this is known as “Hudson River confetti.” The quantity of shad harvested in prehistory must have been enormous. Ethnographic accounts of some Indian nets describe seines as being 500 feet long (Brumbach 1986:42-43). Nets of that size today have been known to capture 1,000 American shad and countless smaller herring in one sweep. With a predictable bounty of this magnitude, there was probably a ritual element tothe harvest. Springtime shad bakes along the Hudson have been a tradition since colonial times, and it would not be surprising to learn that the practice is thousands of years old.
      Within a few weeks another species of river herring, the blueback, would arrive (Figure 1.2.). These fish looked very much like the alewife but their spawning habitat differed. Blueback herring tended to migrate deep into the estuary, going at least 100 miles upriver, where they spawned both in the main river and in tributaries. By their arrival time, however, the initial surge of spawning alewives had lessened, and the bluebacks found plenty of space for themselves.

    These huge schools of spring herring lured more than fishermen. At any time in the pursuit of shad and herring the round head of a harbor seal, like a soccer ball with whiskers, might pop up and strip a net of its contents. It is not uncommon for modern day commercial fishermen to haul their gill nets and find that all of the herring heads have been bitten off. Like kids in a candy store, harbor seals must find a bulging net too much of a temptation to pass. And the resource is so great that rivermen never begrudge them their share.

     Envision a foggy dawn in April of long ago. At first light a dozen people congregate along the river at the mouth of a tidal stream. The air is warm, the river is cool, and the flood tide is halfway up on the beach. A heavy haze is rising off the water and, though unable to see them, they can hear the splashing of hundreds of herring working their way up the river, toward them, nosing along the shore, searching for the entrance to the creek. A shaman faces the water and speaks ancient words, calling the fish (Tooker 1991:64). There is a smell like fresh cucumbers in the air. Some people say that they can smell the presence of river herring in the spring. Certainly these prehistoric fishermen, as they set their seine out from the shore, are using all of their senses. Within seconds they can feel the fish bouncing off the mesh. Those holding the outboard end of the net quickly move ashore, closing the loop, and together they haul a net full of silvery fish onto the sand. The process is quick, simple, and predictable…”

Text from Mohican Seminar 3 * (Chapter One, Pages 8-9) The Ancestral Lure of the Hudson Estuary

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