Herring Tales

Donald Murray Bloomsbury Publishing, 272 pages, $26

The herring is hardly the grandest of fish, but as a cheap source of protein it is hard to beat, and herring fishing was a way of life for many communities around the North Atlantic from the Middle Ages up to the 20th century. Trade in the fish made merchants wealthy. In Scotland, herring are known as "the silver darlings." In Norway, they are called, even more lovingly, "the gold of the sea."

A new account of the herring industry by Donald Murray, a journalist and poet, has nearly as many facets as his slippery subjects have scales. His tale offers fillets of history, culture and zoology, with an emphasis on the ­eclectic — not to say willfully eccentric. Yet his approach in "Herring Tales: How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History" faithfully reflects our relationship with Clupea harengus, which has never been straightforward.

Herring abundance comes and goes, from peaks in the 15th century in the Baltic and right before World War I in Scotland. Overfishing, especially in Soviet countries in the late 20th century, the author says, speeded the industry's decline (though it has since made a partial recovery).

The herring's charms have always extended beyond the culinary; it was also used in ­fertilizer and oil for lamps. But nowadays the herring's role is as much cultural as economic.