Learn about new efforts to protect this underappreciated fish.

Learn about new efforts to protect this underappreciated fish.

Every spring, many rivers of the Eastern Seaboard, from Florida to Canada, shimmer silver as river herring swim their way upstream. River herring-the collective name given to two species of herring, blueback herring and alewife-spend most of their lives at sea, but, like salmon, return to their native rivers to spawn.

Once, their historic runs supported fishermen all along the coast. "As recently as 60 years ago it was an important food source," says Greg Wells, of the Herring Alliance. "But tastes have changed." And their numbers have dropped. Dams and other obstructions haven't made the journey easy. Nor have the huge fleets that fish Atlantic waters. Using long trawl nets, these fisheries target Atlantic herring, the ocean-dwelling (and similar-tasting) cousin of river herring. But in the process, roughly 3.8 million river herring were scooped up as bycatch last year. (These small, oil-rich fish are an important food for wildlife, such as tuna, whales, cod and seabirds.) Ironically, most herring caught in the Atlantic becomes commercial bait for some of our current seafood favorites: lobster, blue crab and tuna-not the most efficient food equation, Wells notes.

There's good news, though. This year, for the first time, laws are in place to limit bycatch. "It was a really significant step," says Wells, whose member groups have also helped remove dams from many river herring habitats. In places where dams still exist, volunteers are lifting fish over them bucket by bucket.

Only a small portion of Atlantic herring makes its way to the human market-pickled in jars or canned. But it's worth revisiting this healthy fish. Its bold flavor can liven up a variety of foods. Because river herring remain "a species of concern," look for wild-caught Atlantic herring, a Seafood Watch "good alternative."

Here are 2 ways to enjoy it:

1. Serve pickled herring with steamed new potatoes and dill.

2. Make an open-face sandwich on pumpernickel with a spread of sour cream, sliced hard-boiled egg, pickled herring, diced red onion and capers.

March/April 2014