Herring Weirs

Kosti Ruohomaa documented the herring fishery from every angle over a number of years including 1953, 1957, 1958, and 1960. He photographed the boats, fishermen, and nets. He photographed the weirs and seines from the open cockpit of an airplane. Kosti drew detailed diagrams of the nets and weirs, and wrote down folk phrases spoken by the fishermen. He photographed herring fishing up and down the coast of Maine, including points off of Vinalhaven, Owl’s Head, Port Clyde, Eastport, and Grand Manan Island. Kosti’s photographs were published in Maine Coast Fisherman in November 1956 and September 1958, and Down East magazine in July 1958 and October 1962.

The sardines one finds in Maine are juvenile Atlantic herring, caught in weirs or seine nets, and then cleaned, scaled, and canned. Atlantic herring live their lives in the ocean and grow to a little over a foot long. They live in both the eastern and western waters of the North Atlantic ocean and once were one of the most plentiful fish species in the world. Herring prefer warmer shoal waters, but have moved away from many estuaries because of pollution. The populations can fluctuate dramatically depending on weather; recently the population has declined steeply due to overfishing and habitat degradation. Herring are a crucial part of the ocean ecosystem, eating zooplankton and feeding a wide range of wildlife from whales to terns. Herring are delicious smoked or pickled, and are used as bait for lobsters.

Herring fishermen use seine nets for fishing, including stop seines, purse seines, and seines with a weir. A weir is a large trap for fish made by building a fence-like structure on the ocean floor that rises up to the waterline at high tide.  Fish are guided by a straight fence that leads them to a small opening in a circular enclosure, where they are trapped. Weirs have been used for thousands of years in Maine to catch fish. A purse seine is a net that is spread flat in a circle and then cinched up, like a draw-string purse, thus catching fish within.