March 16, 2017 — Among the rich natural resources that attracted humans to New York’s harbor was a small migratory fish the colonists called the alewife or sawbelly. As these river herring crowded into spawning creeks every spring, they were noted by the earliest French Jesuits, Dutch trappers and English settlers, and were caught and consumed with abandon by Native Americans and colonists alike.
Alewives are bony, tasty, nutritious and relatively easy to preserve; and, in colonial times, they were abundant. The fish could be eaten by humans or fed to pigs or other livestock. It is highly likely that the famous agricultural mentoring between Squanto, a Patuxet native to what is now Massachusetts, and the pilgrims memorializes yet another less obvious use of herring: as fertilizer for the colonists’ inaugural crops.
Middens and hearths excavated throughout the Northeast are filled with the bones and scales of herring dinners past. But as human settlements grew, both the value and limits of this communal resource became obvious. Alewives were protected by the first known fishery regulations in North America, which date to 1623 in Plymouth Colony. Over time, net sizes, harvest schedules and set locations, as well as catch limits, were all strictly regulated in order to protect these valuable fish.