The Art of Fishing: stop-seine fishing for herring

First published in the MLA Newsletter, June, 2012

In recent decades, many of the traditional fisheries and fishing techniques used in Maine have begun to fade away. As more fisheries become ever more restricted, fishermen who once moved among them with the seasons have found themselves trapped in lobstering. This series will look at some of the lesser-known fishing practices that still occur along our coast but with ever fewer participants.

Atlantic herring are known to form giant schools as they migrate along the New England coast. Scientists estimate that these schools can comprise hundreds of thousands of individual fish. So it’s no wonder that Native Americans who lived along Maine’s coast and the settlers that followed them quickly learned how to capture the silvery fish for use as food and fertilizer.

Jay Boyce, Justin Boyce’s brother, awash in herring pulled from a seine net on Deer Isle. Justin Boyce photo

Weir fishing for herring was once common along the Maine coast. These heart-shaped enclosures were made of brush and wood poles driven into the seabed close to shore. The migrating herring would flow into the weir, move in a circle inside its edge and then end up in the pocket at its center. As the tide dropped, the fish massed and fishermen in dories scooped them up. These weirs can still be found today off Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick.

Later fishermen turned to stop seines to catch the prolific fish. A stop seine is a net drawn across the mouth of a cove into which the herring move as night falls. The fish become trapped behind the net in a square-shaped pocket as the tide drops. Men dip the fish from the pocket into their boats or the fish are harvested via suction by a larger herring carrier.

Justin Boyce, 28, of Stonington, stop seines for herring each spring, as his father and grandfather have done before him. He understands the nuances of this fishery, that the running twine must be pulled across the cove at the dark of the moon, that the cove’s bottom must be sand or mud, not rock, that the pocket must be set along the deepest part of the net because that is where the schooled fish will settle as the tide changes.

“We [Justin and his father] set on two coves last year,” Justin explained. “In years past we set up to fifteen.” It takes time to set up a stop seine. The practice is done at night when the herring, which have been feeding on the bottom during the day, move up in the water column and toward shore as the sun sets and predators are fewer. Justin will begin to set his nets as the tide is running in. “It takes probably an hour and a half. You set the net out, put the anchors on and then it takes about two hours to tie the pocket on,” he said. “Once the pocket is on you go back and straighten out your anchors.” Once the fish are harvested from the pocket, he must take up the running twine to ensure that it remains clean for the next set. “You don’t want it messed up with seaweed and sticks and so forth,” Justin said.

It’s hard to say which set will bring a good catch and which will bring a poor one. Generally, the first sets of the year are better than the later. “The mackerel and other fish come in and the herring don’t bunch up so much,” Justin explained. “A good set at the beginning of the season will bring 1,000 bushels. Later you get smaller, 100 bushels sets after that.”

Now that all the sardine canneries have closed and the American appetite for the canned fish has all but vanished, the herring that Justin and his father catch are sold entirely for lobster bait. Demand for that bait remains high. “It makes sense to start on May 1 (rather than June 1, as is mandated by the New England Fisheries Management Council’s herring management plan), particularly this year when the water’s been so warm,” Justin said. “I always see them earlier than June.”

Photo courtesy of the Penobscot East Resource Center.

Justin is frustrated that those who stop seine for herring have been lumped in with the mobile herring fishermen in reference to the herring quota allocation for Area 1A. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. Under the NEFMC herring management plan, he must abide by the 10 percent by-catch limit for river herring. “I don’t know if I’ve hit that until I take the herring out [of the pocket] and then I have to dump the whole set,” he said. He also doesn’t understand why fishermen east of Cutler are exempt from Maine’s herring regulations, which set specific days on which stop seine fisherman can operate.

Justin’s uncle, lobsterman Ted Boyce, 63, started seining for herring as a child in grade school with his father, George. “My grandfather bought some seining outfits back in the thirties. When Dad got out of the service he took that over,” Ted explained. In those days stop seining began on Memorial Day and went through to July.

“It was quite an operation,” Ted recalled. The first and most important part of the process was to find the herring. The fish might be in this cove or that cove one night and then in another the next. “You go in the dark and you can see the phosphorus stirring in the water [as the fish move through],” Ted explained. “My dad had a peapod. We’d go up to the Merchants Island area quiet as we could. He’d put cloth in the oarlocks [to muffle sound] and I’d row him about. He’d use a feeling pole to find the fish and judge the size.” It takes two men in dories to stretch the net across the cove’s mouth. Sometimes Ted’s father would leave him on shore while he and the other man went out to check the mass of the herring again. “I’d be scared to death, wondering what was coming out of the woods for me,” Ted said with a chuckle.

In those days nets weren’t made of monofilament or nylon threads. “It was cotton twine and cork floats,” Ted said. “We had to salt everything in [when the nets were pulled] to keep it all from rotting.”

Eventually Ted learned to fly a small airplane and began spotting the schools of herring from the air. That, he said, changed the whole operation. “We had real good luck. One time we got a nice bunch of fish over to Islesboro. We set over there for a couple of weeks and the carriers would come every day,” Ted remembered. He estimated that they cleared 2,000 hogshead of herring (63 gallons to a hogshead) in that location.

Seining herring wasn’t Ted’s only line of work. “We did a little clamming. My dad always went scalloping. During the years when there was no herring we would collect that Irish moss for the plant in Stonington,” he said.

Stop seining for herring may be a practice found less frequently along the Maine coast these days but it still provides a lot of bait to local lobstermen early in the season. And a profitable, if back-breaking, line of work for fishermen during the lean months of spring.