“Oh herrings are harvests that fishermen glean,
Where flashes the silver through deep oceans green,
And when herring harvests reach old Aberdeen,
They’re known as the silver darlings”
“Silver Darlings” by Bob Halfin and Hulskramer
In Caledonia, Atlantic Herring are romantically referred to as Silver Darlings. Around New England they’re simply called Atlantic Herring. The remaining stanzas conjure up the value of this fishery. “The wives and the sweethearts are the women who know the full price of the silver darlings.”
You may have seen several big draggers last fall off Narragansett Town Beach. The boats are from up the coast, and like the Scots in the poem, they’re fishing for herring. They fish for a week or so, and then they head back up north with boatloads of catch.
Both Atlantic Herring and River Herring end up in the nets of the aforementioned mid-water fishing draggers — nets do not discriminate. But there is a major difference between Atlantic Herring and River Herring. The latter are referred to as Alewives, Sawbellys or Buckeyes and are anadromous fish; the cleaver little creatures are born in fresh water but also can live in salt water. Atlantic Herring spawn in the Gulf of Maine, but Alewives have many miles to travel first, running up rivers and streams to find suitable spawning ground. About five miles west of where the draggers harvest is the entrance to Point Judith Pond, the beginning of what can be a long journey for the Alewives as they try to get to Indian Lake to spawn.
In 1930, a Belgian scientist, G. Denil, invented fish ladders — also called fish ways, fish steps and fish passes — to help the process along where dams impounded the water. There are three nearby —in Peace Dale at Palisades Mill on Route 108, in Wakefield on Main Street near High Street, and in North Kingstown at the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum.
And while the fish ladders help the Alewives spawn, there was a problem.
That’s where Bill McWha comes in. McWha — a truck driver by trade — saw the herring getting stuck at the base of the Main Street fish ladder.
When herring are juveniles, they are called the “Young of the Year,” in their Indian Lake habitat, and as they head to the sea, they become imprinted with the smell of the water. A year later, they return to the lake by following the scent of the water. But as they head toward the fish ladder, some of the fish head toward the dam, and not the ladder. “They followed the scent going in a straight line and away from the ladder,” he said. Subsequently, the fish got stuck.
He decided to help. McWha scooped up some fish, to give them a little nudge to the ladder. He also noticed gridlock farther up the river at the Palisades fish ladder, so he helped the herring there, too. “People saw me carrying the buckets of fish at the Palisades ladder, and wanted to help, all different kinds of people, men, women, young and old. They all simply pitched in. They wanted to help.” Last year, approximately 40 volunteers moved 18,000 fish, using a bucket brigade system. There are plans to expand the Palisades ladder, to expedite the passing of the herring up the ladder, which could alleviate the bucket brigade. When that happens, the volunteers will count the fish.
McWha was one man with a plan, and he is making a difference. Herring, like other species are being over fished. Bycatch, unwanted fish caught while fishing for a different species, is an issue, and let’s not forget those draggers from up north, that take in large catches. More importantly as McWha says, “everything feeds on herring,” — a herring is like a Hershey’s Kiss for a bass. Through their efforts, McWha and the volunteers help keep the river herring population strong.