Alewives. Eels. Smelts. Frostfish. These fish don't show up in the flesh much anymore. But for longtime Rhode Island fishermen, their ghosts still haunt the coast.
During a recent project to understand how changing environments affect fisheries, I kept hearing about these bygone fisheries. Like the frostfish. They used to show up every fall, a few old timers told me. Schools of them arrived on the south coast and the edges of the bay, always just after the first frost. It was a whole-ecosystem event; monkfish used to swim right up into the Sakonnet harbor chasing the frostfish. Fishermen chased them too, illuminated by lantern light, gathering them as they jumped out of the water and landed on the sand.
A frostfish, it turns out, is a whiting or silver hake (Merluccius bilinearis). But it is only called a frostfish when it comes in close to shore after the frost. Since whiting do not come in close to shore anymore, frostfish no longer exist. There are plenty of whiting; they just stay farther offshore -- so they are whiting, not frostfish. The monkfish don't come in to shore either. And the fishermen no longer bundle up on nippy November nights to snag a few baskets of the annual visitors.
Why things change in the marine ecosystem is a question that is full of mystery. Some changes are linked to development and pollution in the nearshore habitat. Temperature no doubt plays a role. Predator-prey cycles and concentrated fishing pressure on localized population units can sometimes be involved. For anadromous fish, dams are a significant factor. But one thing is clear: ecosystems are the locus of human traditions, and when ecosystems change, the people who once participated in those traditions can be haunted by their memory forever.
Records of these ghosts can also be found in the archives of local newspapers:
(from "A Frostfish Harvest on the South Shore," Providence Journal, December 28, 1913)
"Along the shore of the old South County, where the billows of the Atlantic break and moan upon the broad sandy beach, there are few pastimes more popular or more profitable than that of gathering the palatable frostfish. On almost every calm night from early October until well into December the shore is visited by scores of persons who gather the frostfish, oftentimes by the cartload...
"According to adepts in sea lore the frostfish, a slender, scaleless denizen of the deep, said to be a first cousin to the cod, makes periodical visits to the vicinity of Narragansett bay. It appears regularly each fall to some extent, but once in every three or four years it is said to be more abundant than at other times. Some of those who make a practice of catching the fish assert that they are more abundant in presidential years. No logical reason is given as to just why these finny denizens of the deep should appear in such large numbers in this corner of the globe at the time the freeholders are intent upon selecting a Chief Executive...
"According to the old fishermen of Pirate's Paradise in the lee of Point Judith's rugged headlands the frostfish leaves his submarine retreat to haunt the inlets along the New England coast as soon as the air becomes tinged with the first suggestion of cold weather. It runs into the coves and bays, where it hovers around piers and docks, making nightly forages for food among the small bait fish along the shore.
"Years ago, before the pollution of the Providence River became a problem, spearing the fish was a favorite diversion of residents of this city.... Even as late as a decade ago a considerable number of those who worked in factories and shops in the city made nightly pilgrimages to the east and west shores of the bay, and under favorable conditions they seldom failed in capturing half a dozen or more in a single evening.
"But it is only on the broad, sandy beaches, such as that along the coast of the South County, that the fish manifests its extraordinary habit of coming ashore and literally jumping into the hands of fishermen... [I]ts peculiar habit is taken advantage of by the farmers and fishermen. Every night when the weather is clear and cold and there is a low surf the south shore is patrolled by scores of persons carrying lanterns. They walk close to the edge of the dying breakers and seize the fish as they come floundering out of the surf. The fish are gathered in baskets, loaded into express wagons, and the catch for two or three persons very frequently amounts to several hundred pounds of fish in a single night."
(from "When the Herrings Run," Providence Journal May 13, 1917)
"With the coming of the first warm weather in May, Taunton becomes the mecca for numerous tourists from divers sections of southern New England who journey to the Massachusetts city for the purpose of watching the herring run. Scores of miles are traversed by members of this curious throng who gather along the sides of the sluiceway to watch the finny denizens of the deep sea scrambling and rumbling through the swift flowing waters on their way to the spawning ponds upstream...
"But with the residents of towns along the shores of the Taunton River the migration of the herrings from the salt sea to the inland fresh water ponds is of more than mere spectacular interest. To a very limited number the run of herring means a season of fishing de luxe, with a substantial addition to the annual income, and to a considerably greater number it means a supply of delectable fish at very moderate prices.
"Although it is pretty generally agreed among the old fishermen of Yankeedom that 'herring fishing is petering out,' the privilege is still zealously guarded and is looked upon as a financial asset by the towns bordering upon the shores of the Taunton river and these bailiwicks find little difficulty in selling the right to take the herrings each year for considerably more than the fishermen say it is worth.
"The right to take the herrings from the Taunton river is vested in the towns along its banks, but for the purpose of conserving the greatest good for the greatest number of townsfolk the practice of selling the privilege at public auction was adopted long ago. Under the law, Raynham, Somerset, Berkley, Assonet, and Fall River each has the right to sell two privileges of fish while the city of Taunton has three privileges to dispose of.
"These privileges are sold to the highest bidder on or before Nov. 15. Years ago when the herrings, or alewives, were more plentiful than they have been of late years the privilege of taking them from the stream was eagerly sought. The Taunton river herring had a wide reputation of being the most delectable species of its kind and hence was readily sold in Fall River, Boston and Providence: big hauls of fish were the rule, several thousand being taken at one sweep of the net, and the competition in the bidding for the privileges was keen."
(from "Spearing Eels," Providence Journal, March 3, 1946)
"If you feel the need for fresh air and exercise, get yourself an 18-foot eel spear, an axe and burlap bag and sally forth upon the ice clotting the coves of Narragansett Bay. Chop a hole about two feet in diameter and insert your spear, the end with the fan of hooks pointed down. Poke energetically into the mud on the bottom and you may find an eel dreaming in his bed about the fun he will have next Summer catching mummies. If you are spry and pull back your spear you may catch the eel. A brisk north wind with the temperature flirting with the zero mark will add to your spryness.
"In Greenwich Cove, where the gaffers visit the fishing shacks in Scallop Town and recall the days when a man could walk safely out on the ice as far as the Sally Rock bell buoy and 'git his fill of eeling' any day January or February, a handful of eel spearmen are at work this Winter. They are finding the best 'eeling' through the ice along the Potowomut shore across the cove from the Town of East Greenwich.
"Among them are John E. Dawley, who strokes his graying mustache and says he's 'getting pretty close to 70,' and the four Maddalena brothers. The Maddalenas - Arthur, Rinaldo, Armino, and Vito - are shell fishermen in the Summer, eel spearmen in Winter. Dawley, who came to East Greenwich in 1904, will take an eel when he can regardless of the time of year.
"The 'eeling' this year is pretty thin, say the Maddalenas, recalling the day several years ago when Rinaldo pulled 98 of the snake-like fish out of one hole in the upper end of the cove, but there are plenty for home consumption. And home consumption is just what an eel is best suited for, the Greenwich Cove spearmen insist. Skinned and chopped in sections, pan-fried, cooked in the oven or in deep fat, an eel furnishes a delicious repast."
(from "Pawcatuck Smelts," Providence Journal, April 13, 1947)
"Synonymous with the coming of Spring in the Pawcatuck River is smelt fishing and almost as synonymous with smelt fishing in Westerly is the name of Walter W. Brayman. As soon as the back of Winter is broken and the snow disappears from the South County Hills, the smelts leave the depths of the Atlantic and swim into the brackish tidal rivers such as the Pawcatuck to spawn...
"Smelts travel up the river only at certain times of the day and to catch them a fisherman must cast his nets out just as the tide is changing. He can try 'slack water,' and he has a second chance at the first of 'flood water.' ...
"Favorite fishing ground for the Braymans are the docks at the rear of the lumber and coal yards off Main Street. With two men ashore to handle one end of the 300-foot net and two others in a skiff, the seine is hauled down-river for about 300 feet and when brought ashore the fishermen deftly pick up the silvery smelts from hundreds of 'tom cod' or 'frost fish,' as they are called locally, that also get caught in the net.
"Disposing of the catch is no problem. The fish markets will take all Brayman and his helpers can bring in. Prices now are as high as they have ever been, he says. At retail, smelts were bringing in about 60 cents a pound at the start of the season. It has been nearly 10 years, however, since catches were of sufficient size to ship out to the New York market."