Gateway to the Classics: Within the Deep by R. Cadwallader Smith
Within the Deep by  R. Cadwallader Smith

Fish for Breakfast

Of all the fish in the wide ocean world, the Herring deserves to be called the king. He gives work to thousands of people, and food to millions. Many towns exist because of him; if he failed to visit our seas, these big towns would shrink to tiny villages.

There are several interesting kinds of Herring, but we will first look at the one we know so well, which is such good food, either fresh or as dried "kipper" or "bloater."

The Herring loves to swim in a shoal. From the time he leaves the egg, during his babyhood, and all through his life, he explores the sea with thousands of other Herrings crowded round him. His name is from a foreign word—heer  or herr,  an army. His enemies—ourselves among them—find this habit of his a good one. It makes him such easy prey.

Here is a dense shoal of fish, moving slowly along near the surface. To catch some is quite easy. The Dolphin, or Shark, or other large fish-hunter, merely has to rush into their ranks with wide-open mouth. Hordes of Dog-fish feast on the edges of the shoal. And Gannets, Cormorants, Gulls and other sea-birds can take their fill with ease.

The Herring shoal is a banquet at which the fish-eating sea creatures feed heartily, and man comes along, to spread his nets in the path of the shoal. But what matter a few million Herrings when the sea is packed with billions more! In the North Sea, one shoal was seen which was over four miles long and two miles wide. In such a mass there would be, at the very least, twenty thousand million Herring; and this shoal was but one out of many thousand shoals. One might as well try to count the grains of sand on the shore as the Herrings in the wide ocean.

These huge shoals do not stay long in one part of the sea. They make journeys of many miles, each shoal seeming to keep to itself. Like every other creature, the Herring goes where his food is. What food does he find? He swallows the small life of the sea, tiny transparent things like baby shrimps, prawns, crabs, and so on, which swarm even in the cold water which the Herring loves.

They are good juicy food, these little mites, and very plentiful; so no wonder the Herring becomes plump. He eats greedily of this good food. For instance, a young Herring, picked up on the beach at Yarmouth, was found to contain no less than one hundred and forty-three small shrimps. Not a bad dinner for a fish the length of this page! The ocean teems with small creatures; even the huge Greenland Whale feeds on them, and the Herring seems to live on little else.

Well, the shoals of Herring begin to move from their feeding place in the deeps, and come nearer the coast. As they get to shallower water they are crowded together near the surface. Where are they going, and why?

Perhaps you can guess—they seek warmer, shallower water, in which to lay their eggs. Now is the time for the fisherman! If the Herring kept to the deep they would be quite safe—and we should have no nice plump Herrings on our breakfast tables! Yes, now is the time to spread out miles of nets in the path of this living mass of silvery fish. They are in fine condition, well fed, and ready to lay their eggs.

They are moving slowly but surely towards the right place where those eggs should be laid. What guides them? Why do they go this  way and not that  in the vast ocean? We do not really know what guides them; so we say that they obey a wonderful, unfailing guide—"instinct."

Of course you have seen and tasted the "hard" roe of a Herring; but I do not suppose you have ever troubled to count all those little round eggs. Each roe contains some thirty thousand of them! What a huge number of young ones for one Herring! Still, this is not a large family, as fish families go. The Cod lays about nine million eggs!

At last the Herrings reach the breeding grounds that they sought, and the eggs are laid. The eggs of most sea-fish just drift on the surface of the ocean, at the mercy of their enemies, and washing here and there as the current sends them. The Herring's eggs sink to the bottom and, being rather sticky, adhere wherever they fall.

There they lie in masses, on the bed of the sea, and then guests of all kinds hasten to enjoy such a rare feast of eggs, laid ready for them. One of the first guests is the Haddock. He comes in his thousands, greedy for his part of the good food; but, knowing this, the fishermen also hasten to the spot, and the Haddock pays dearly for his love of Herring eggs.

Only a few out of each thousand eggs will escape their enemies, and the baby Herrings, which hatch in about a fortnight, run many dangers; thus, in the end, the huge family of Mrs. Herring is reduced to a small one. Even so, there are countless numbers of the tiny fish. They soon grow shining scales, like those of their parents, and move towards the coast.

It is a pretty sight, these little silvery Herrings playing in the shallow water. Millions of them dart about and flash in the sunshine, during the summer months, round our coasts. Sea-birds and other enemies hover round, to feast on the tiny fish. Great numbers of these baby Herrings are caught and sold as "Whitebait."

The older Herrings, having laid their eggs, leave the shallows, and make their way into deep water. They are no longer nice to eat, and the Herring harvest is over until the following season.

In our talk on flat-fish we shall notice how they are caught, near the bed of the sea, in the trawl-net. Now this net is of no use for the capture of Herrings. They swim in the open water, near the surface, and so another kind of trap, the drift-net,  is used.

Hundreds of vessels sail from our fishing ports when King Herring is about. Each vessel carries a number of drift-nets. These nets are to be let down like a hanging wall, in the path of the shoal, at night. Corks or bladders are fastened to the upper edge of the nets. Of course they are all mended and made ready before the vessels reach the fishing grounds. It is not easy to know where to shoot the nets; all the skill and knowledge of the fisherman are needed to locate the shoals, and, without this knowledge, he would come home with an empty vessel. Even as it is, he sometimes catches no more fish than would fill his hat.

A sharp look-out is kept. An oily gleam in the sea tells the knowing fisherman that the shoal is there; or he may see a Gull swoop down and carry off a Herring. Then the nets are put out in the path of the shoal. A big fleet of fishing vessels may let down a thousand miles of nets!


The Herring Fleet at Work in the North Sea

The Herrings, not seeing the fine wall of net, swim into it. Now the openings in the net—the meshes—are one inch across, just wide enough for the Herring to poke his head through. Once through, he is caught. His gill-covers prevent him from drawing back again. Thousands of other Herrings are held tight, all around him, and the rest of the shoal scatters for the time being.

When the nets are hauled in, the fisherman beholds a mighty catch, a sight to repay him for all his trouble. On being taken from its watery home each Herring is dead almost at once—"as dead as a Herring."

Then comes the race to the market. Once in port, the vessels are rapidly emptied. Hundreds of thousands of shining, silvery bodies are piled on the quays—a sight worth seeing! An army of packers gets to work; and the fresh fish are soon on the rail, speeding to the great fish markets, on the way to your breakfast table.

The story of the Herring fishery is one of deep interest, and of great importance. Millions of Herrings are caught every year, forming a cheap and good food. Yet there are uncountable numbers left; and there is not the least danger that our nets can ever empty the sea of this wonderful little fish.

The Herring has several smaller relatives, all of them being excellent food for us. The Pilchard is one of them; the Sardine is merely a young Pilchard. Countless myriads of Pilchards visit the Cornish coast; strangely enough, they frequent only this corner of our seas.

Another cousin of the Herring, the Sprat, is also a fine food, and so cheap that poor people can enjoy it. Baby Herrings and baby Sprats are caught in great quantity, and sold under the name of "Whitebait." It was thought, at one time, that the Whitebait was another kind of fish; but Whitebait are really the Herring and Sprat in their baby state.

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