So JUST between us mammals…..
The River Herring are a group of fish that are similar to salmon, they travel between freshwater and saltwater throughout their lives. Given their namesake perhaps you would assume the RIVER herring spend most of their lives in rivers but you would be WRONG! These so-called ‘River’ Herring actually spend most of their lives in the ocean.
The term River Herring refers to two closely related species, the alewife (scientific name: Alosa pseudoharengus) and the blueback herring (scientific name: Alosa aestivalis). These fish have a wide range that extends along almost the entire eastern seaboard of North America. They’re grouped together as the river herring because they have a very similar life history and are quite difficult to tell apart.
So why are these fish called RIVER herring if they live in the ocean?!
It’s likely that early North Americans primarily interacted with river herring when they migrated into coastal estuaries, rivers, and streams during their annual spawning run. River herring migrate into freshwater from the sea in the springtime when the water gets warm. Back when river herring were abundant, personal accounts documenting their spawning runs described the rivers as teeming with billions of fish. Early North Americans would take advantage of the predictability of this spawning run to catch and preserve fish. This stock of food was incredibly important and a strong harvest meant survival through the long and cold northeastern winters.
What are some other names for river herring?
Since these fish live anywhere from rivers in Canada to streams in Florida, they’ve been called a lot of different names: bigeye herring, branch herring, freshwater herring, gaspereau, grayback, gray herring, kyak, sawbelly, white herring, buckie, and buckey (Narrow River Preservation Association). While the origin of some of these names is based on what this fish looks like, or where they were found, others have more interesting or even mysterious origins!
Gaspereau comes from the Arcadian french and the origins of this word for river herring are unknown. First documented by W.F. Ganong in 1910:
“Gaspereau, or Gasparot. Name of a common salt-water fish of Acadia (also called alewife), first used, so far as I can find, by Denys in 1672. Nowhere can I find any clue to its origin. It seems not to be [indigenous].”W.F. Ganong, 1910
Sawbelly is another common name for river herring, though some sources only assigned it to the alewife. This name was likely given to the fish because of its sharp serrated underbelly (URI).
Kyak or Kiack is the word for river herring in the Mi’kmaw people’s language. The Mi’kmaw are a loose confederacy of semi-nomadic tribes across northeastern Canada. Historically, Mi’kmaw villages relied on the sea and rivers for up to 90% of their food (Mi’kmaw Spirit). They relied on the annual migration of river herring and similarly related species and would catch these fish using fish weirs. Fish weirs are a V-shaped tunnel made of wood or rock that would force the fish into a narrow passage where they could be caught with nets or baskets. Kejimkujik National Park was recognized as a National Historic Site in 2002 due to the millennia of Mi’kmaw history connected to the region.
I was unable to find information on some of the other names like buckie/buckey, perhaps this one came from “big-eye herring”?
Do you know any names for the river herring that aren’t listed here? Let us know in the comments!