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|Herring Harvest: Fixed Gear Fishery - Herring Weirs in the Gulf of Maine|
Native Americans were the first weir (fixed-gear coastal trap) fishermen along the Gulf of Maine coast. Centuries ago, Native Americans in Maine saw thousands of silver fish swimming along their shores. The fish they saw were coastal Atlantic herring swimming into Maine's many coves and bays during the late summer spawning season.
The herring were difficult to catch by traditional hook or spear, so the fishermen devised a method to trap them without ever needing to leave dry (or at least muddy) ground. At low tide, the Native American fishermen constructed traps of sticks plunged into the soft bottom with bushes and branches woven in between. The fish would swim into an opening in the trap as they swam along the shoreline at night. When the tide receded they lay stranded high and dry, easy picking for the fishermen.
Early European settlers, accustomed to eating herring as part of their diet in the "old world," quickly assimilated this fishing method. Over time, they built upon the traditional fixed gear weir fishery and developed a stop-seine fishery that involves setting nets across a narrow cove after the herring enter, thus blocking their escape.
The Fixed Gear Weir Fishery Today
The fixed gear weir fishery still exists today, primarily along Grand Manan Island and New Brunswick's Bay of Fundy coast. Modern herring weirs are similar to the early Native American versions. They consist of a fence of long stakes driven into the ground with nets arranged in a circle or heart shape. The bottom stake rises just above low tide level and is lashed to a top stake that rises several feet above high water. Securely fastened to the weir stakes from top to bottom is the massive net.
Swimming along the shore at night, schools of young herring bump into the lead line or fence and are directed shoreward to enter the weir through its open mouth. Once inside the weir, the herring are unable to exit and swim in a circular pattern. Fishermen check their weirs at sunrise, using boats and manpower to purse seine the trapped herring from the weir. From here the herring are transferred to larger boats called herring "carriers" which bring the catch to nearby processing plants.
For many decades, fixed gear (stop seines and weirs) provided the bulk of the juvenile herring catch for the many packing plants once scattered along the Maine coast. Unfortunately, coastal schools of juvenile herring have all but vanished in recent years.
Photographs from the Gulf of Maine Weir Fishery