Judi Lehmann, originally from Minnesota, is a world traveler who calls Sitka home. For the last several years, Judi has been learning the art of fish skin tanning and sewing. Her journey began when she took a fish skin sewing class from Audrey Armstrong. Judi and the other students worked with whole fish donated by Sitka Sound Science Center to learn how to clean, gut, and skin fish. After stripping the skins off the fish, they are soaked in alcohol before being sewn into various items, such as bags, bowls, hats, and even dresses.
This past weekend 4-H collaborated with Alaska Department of Fish and Game for the Annual Fishing Clinic. Troy Tydingco and Matt Catterson, fisheries biologists from ADF&G, taught a group of 4-Hers fishing skills as a part of the 4-H Alaska Way of Life program.
4-Hers pick out beads to add to their lures.
In the classroom portion of the clinic, children learned how to tie the “improved clench” knot (commonly known as the fisherman’s knot) and created their own unique fishing lures courtesy of ADF&G. Each participant added a creative touch to the homemade spinners. 4-Hers sharpened their casting skills by practicing with both spin cast and spinning reels while using hooli-hoops for target practice.
Troy and Matt from ADF&G review casting technique while 4-Her’s practice their skills.
Troy from ADF&G demonstrates the anatomy of a chum salmon to 4-Hers
The beautiful weather allowed for an exciting fishing session at Eagle beach. 4-Hers got to put their new skills into action by tying swivels onto rods and casting with the hope of catching some Pink salmon. Additionally, ADF&G dissected a chum salmon with the children to demonstrate salmon anatomy and increase their understanding of this important resource.
4-Her reels in a Pink Salmon with the help of Matt from ADF&G. Photos by Mary Wood
The group even enjoyed some visits from humpback whales and a Steller sea lion. A special thanks goes out to ADF&G, especially Troy and Matt, for taking the time to teach us some practical elements to such an important aspect of Sitka’s way of life.
On July 9th, I had another exciting experience during my 3-week internship at SCS. After focusing on learning about the natural history and management of salmon, this week I got to help at a salmon-canning class with the 4-Hers!
Some preparatory work was required before we would be ready to show the kids how canning works.
Sophie brought us the fish – generously provided by local fisherman Eric Jordan - one pink and one coho. Wonderful Renee showed us how to filet the salmon, and let us have a try (our knife work was not in the same skill realm as Renee’s).
Renee and Sarah filleting our salmon
The guidelines we used for prepping our salmon were provided by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. After fileting and cutting the fish into pieces, we soaked the fish in saltwater for 45 minutes. Then we smoked the fish for about 2 hours. These steps were to add flavor to the fish before canning. They were not sufficient to preserve the fish (that’s what the canning was for).
We took all our fish and materials to the middle school and met up with 13 eager kids!
After introducing ourselves, we talked about salmon. These kids know a lot! Most of them have caught salmon, and all of them have eaten it! We talked about different ways to preserve salmon (smoking, freezing). Then we talked about canning as a way to preserve the bounty of salmon that can be caught in the summer.
On to the action! Everyone washed their hands, and lined up to fill a jar with the prepared salmon. There was a visible difference between the pink and the coho, and a few intrepid kids who know which was which!
Photo By Lione Clare
While Sophie and Sarah got the pressure cooker started, I shared some stories and pictures with the kids about my time at the Redoubt Lake fish weir. I told them about what the weir is for, how we count the fish, how we catch and measure some of the sockeye salmon, and about all the creatures around that want to eat the fish. They asked lots of great questions!
Photo By Lione Clare
We talked about all the things that a migrating salmon might have to overcome to make it to its birthplace river to spawn - bears, eagles, otters, orcas, steep waterfalls, and people! Their imaginations and artistic talents were on display as they used crayons and paper to draw some of the obstacles a migrating salmon has to avoid.
Since it takes two hours for the salmon to cook in the pressure cooker, we had some already-canned salmon to taste. Consensus – delicious!
Photo By Lione Clare
It was my first 4H class ever, and I had a great time! I learned a lot from Sarah, an Alaska Way of Life 4-H Leader, by watching how wonderfully she works with the children. I now have another Alaskan salmon experience to remember!
The beginning of the 4-H Alaska Way of Life kayaking camp was on land. The kayakers learned the parts of the boat, the safety equipment and what to do if tipped over. Then they were ready to get on the water! Majority of these 4-H members had never been in a kayak before.
Photo by Lione Clare
The next three days at Swan Lake, the 4-her’s got to try out technical skills like forward and backward paddling strokes and using the rudder with foot pedals. With double kayaks, the 4-h members partnered and worked on communication and teamwork to get their kayak moving the right direction. As a group, everyone worked on kayaking together in a called a pod.
Photo by Lione Clare
Rough winds kept us at Swan Lake an extra day, but even wind and rain could not dampen our spirits! The 4-H members discussed why high winds would be a very bad combination for kayaking on the ocean. We all agreed that conditions were much safer on the Lake!
Photo by Lione Clare
Luckily, the next day gave us beautiful weather! The last day at Mosquito Cove held new challenges for everyone. The ocean provided the waves and currents that kept everyone paddling hard. Everyone put in his or her best efforts, and as the 4-h motto reminds, from here out, their best will only get better!
Photo by Lione Clare
Along with learning the practice skills of kayaking safety and teamwork, this camp allowed 4-H members to enjoy nature in a new way, especially at such young ages. The youngest 4-H members were going into kindergarten this fall, and have already spent a 4 days of kayaking! Having a personal connection with nature inspires youth to become stewards of the Tongass.
The island of Admiralty remains to this day a place preserved almost entirely as Wilderness. Home to the highest density of brown bears in North America, a population of a few hundred residents, and prolific stands of old-growth that never saw the saw, this country, by anyone’s definition, the federal government’s included, is Wild. But the briefest of glances at Admiralty’s history makes immediately evident that this future was never assured; the preserved state of this landscape never necessarily its inevitable fate. To quite the contrary, nature on Admiralty has known many threats, its trees for decades the particular envy of loggers throughout Southeast. But despite the long history of people seeking to degrade Admiralty, there exists an equally long history and tradition of people working to defend it. This past week, I had the privilege of meeting the four individuals adding yet another chapter to this story of wilderness stewardship on Admiralty Island.
The Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) project taking place on Admiralty is engaging four youth from around the country in community and conservation work. Sponsored by the Forest Service and supported by the Sitka Conservation Society, this corps has been tasked with initiatives that address the health of Admiralty’s Kootznoowoo wilderness, its community of Angoon, and, hopefully, each YCC’s commitment to conservation, by bringing them into contact and communion with the land. Such connection, SCS has always believed, lies at the essence of environmental ethic and action. Or in other words, the land itself is oftentimes its own most effective advocate, the best thing we can do being simply to bring people out to it. By employing youth to work with our public lands, the YCC program is thus very much aligned with the model of conservation advocacy that SCS has always practiced. And by helping the Forest Service host this corps branch, we have been able to foster these person-place connections with an incredibly important segment of society: the rising generation of potential environmental stewards.
When I arrived in Angoon, the YCCs had just completed construction of a community greenhouse, and were soon to set off for three weeks in the Kootznoowoo Wilderness. There they would be participating in shelter and trail maintenance, non-native plant control, and general restoration and monitoring – projects to which the Forest Service had put the Civilian Conservation Corps over eighty years ago, as part of the New Deal.
Sitting at the doorstep of Kootznoowoo – having just witnessed a whale pass by, listening to the roaring of a sea lion, and sated by the salmonberries we had picked on our hike – I had the chance to talk to the YCCs about their thoughts on the Wilderness, this tradition of stewardship, and the Southeast Alaskan environment in which they were immersed.
Below is some of what each of them had to say:
How much did you know about Wilderness before this program?
Jaxon Collins: Not a lot.
Breeze Anderson: I didn’t know anything.
Elizabeth Crawford: Not really anything.
Travis Maranto: Not very much.
And what do you know and think now?
Jaxon: I know that there are people who have been trying hard their whole lives to keep wilderness intact, and I think other people should try and respect that.
Breeze: I think that to work with nature, in particular these Wilderness areas, is a necessity, and that it needs to be done before we ruin it.
Elizabeth: This landscape already feels as if its home to me.
Travis: I’ve always had a love and respect for nature, but I never truly understood Wilderness as being so free and untrammeled. Just being in this space you immediately sense something special about it.
Why are you excited about the wilderness stewardship work ahead?
Jaxon: It’s just amazing to be one of the first youth groups out here in a while doing this. Maybe it can inspire others who have an interest to take action too.
Breeze: This work gives me hope. Hope that these efforts to conserve can keep going, since they’ve already been going on for so long.
Elizabeth: I just feel very fortunate to have been picked to come here. You need trees to breathe and well, to really do everything. And now here I am standing in their beauty and I get to help protect them. That makes me excited.
Travis: I have such a deep respect and love for wild places, and I don’t think there’s enough of them. In the modern age, humans have been destroying them rapidly. When you think about the millions of years Earth has been here, we’ve only been here a very short period of time, and we’ve already done a great deal to screw it up. I’m here because I want to do a something to fix that, and convince others to do so too.
If there’s one thing you would say to people to convince people that these places are worthy of protection, what would it be?
Jaxon: When you’re out here, you get to forget about all of the worries of life and just be yourself. It’s incredibly freeing.
Breeze: There’s a saying I like which goes: “we think we own the land, when really the land has no owner.” Being out here, in this stunning landscape, I get reminded of that fact. I mean, this place has been here for ages, and to help it stay the way it is rather than destroying it, that’s a powerful thing to be a part of.
Elizabeth: We always say in my family that we only have one Earth. In society we’re always searching for the newer, cooler thing. But why ruin what we already have, what we’ve relied on for all our lives? We need to appreciate and protect our Earth, because it gives us so much we don’t even realize.
Travis: Nature gives so much to us – wood, salmon, sustenance, fresh air – and we’ve been taking these things from nature for thousands of years in a manner that didn’t also destroy it. But now in modern times we’ve just been trashing the ecosystem. And I can participate in that destruction, or I can jump in and help.
Hailing from as nearby as Tenakee Springs, Alaska or as faraway as Mobile, Alabama, these four YCC members represent a diversity of background and experience. But it was clear from our conversations that a commonality of spirit exists amongst them when it comes to caring for and conserving the land. Which comes as good news, because as Matthew Fred Sr., the Tlingit elder of Angoon, bluntly put it, when it comes to conservation, “there are no guarantees. You have to fight for what you want.” Just as we owe Kootznoowoo’s current state to our predecessors who fought to preserve it, generations to come will inherit the landscape that our actions in the present have left to them.
And although wilderness exists in the minds of many an inviolable place, the truth is that these landscapes are not immune to assault. Just this year, an airport has been proposed within the boundaries of Kootznoowoo, and as of a few days ago, Admiralty’s Green's Creek Mine expansion project broke ground, threatening to leach more contaminants into the nearby Wilderness environment as waste product. All of which just serves as a reminder that wilderness work is the responsibility of each successive generation, or at least each generation that continues to find some value, apart from the economic, in these areas. It is unfortunate, but a reality, that lands with many threats require many defenders. Whether you’re examining the specific story of Admiralty, the history of Alaska, or America’s past more broadly, one fact will remain true throughout: the tree one person alone could fell it has taken many people to defend.
On the surface, I admit, this seems a depressing reality. But I wonder if, in some ways, this is actually the condition from which conservation also derives its strength, as it makes conservation, in my mind at least, inherently an act of community – something that requires conversation with the past, cooperative action in the present, and a commitment to fostering stewardship in the caretakers of the future. What I saw during my visit to Angoon was the YCC program doing just that: educating youth about the history of our public lands; engaging them in present preservation efforts; and empowering them to be future conservationists. And thus, while the future of public lands should not be taken for granted, never assumed as assured, of one thing it seems we can be certain: if the YCC is any indication, there remain those out there willing and eager to take on the cause of continued stewardship and service.
The YCC crew, from left to right: Travis, Jaxon, Breeze, and Elizabeth
Be sure to stay updated on the YCC throughout the remainder of the month by way of the SCS Facebook page. Have specific questions about the YCC? Feel free to email to their crew leader, SCS’s own Mike Belitz (email@example.com). And for more on wilderness stewardship at SCS, keep checking our website, or call (907-747-7509) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to get involved. We’d love to hear from you!
To start the 4-H Outdoor Skills series, the Alaska Way of Life 4-H project members learned about water filters and what to carry in a first aid kit! The 4-H members experimented using sand, pebbles and gravel as filters for water. They discovered that water filters have different pores sizes. They learned how to set up a gravity filter and watched as the stream water was filtered. 4-Hers also had a discussion about where a person should get their water, even if it is going to be filtered. The 4-H members then learned what to carry in a first aid kit.
Photo by Lione Clare
As the series continued, the 4-Hers gathered twigs and sticks for a beach campfire. Down on the beach, the 4-Her’s practiced Leave No Trace ethics while learning how to build a fire. Our campfire was built below the high tide so the waves could wipe away all traces! Once the fire was going, everyone enjoyed some yummy roasted marshmallows. After the fire building, the 4-H club worked together to find a campsite, set up a tent, and carefully put it away.
Photos by Lione Clare
4-Her’s got to try their hand at tying knots: an essential wilderness skill. After practicing the square knot and the slipknot, we walked to find the perfect tree for a bear hang! A great way to keep bears away from food while camping. With the completion of this series, these 4-Her's have some of the necessary skills to explore the Tongass!
Photo by Sarah Komisar
The Not So Ugly
While we’ve toured through the good (sustainable) uses of herring to the bad (unsustainable) uses of herring, now popular culture dictates that we tour through the ugly uses of herring. Although we’re all suckers for Clint Eastwood movie titles, however, “the ugly” is a poor description for the herring fishery we’d like to explore: the spawn on kelp or “pound” fishery. On the contrary, pound fisheries have potential to marry the sustainability of the traditional harvest with the economic gain that accompanies the sac roe industry. Not so ugly after all!
Eggs coat a blade of Macrocystis. While wild eggs on kelp are beautiful, one challenge of pound fisheries is getting a more consistent product. ©Bethany Goodrich
What is a pound fishery?
A pound fishery harvests herring roe deposited on kelp blades, more frequently referred to as spawn on kelp or SOK. Commercially, SOK is harvested on Macrocystis kelp, although hair kelp is frequently harvested by traditional users as well. Pound fisheries come in two flavors: closed pounds and open pounds.
Closed pounds give this fishery its name. A “pound” is a pen made of nets that surrounds stalks of kelp, usually suspended from the water’s surface. With a closed pound, herring are transported into one of these pens before spawning, held for several days during the spawn, and released upon completion. Closed pounds are carefully regulated by Fish and Game, who specify everything from the maximum size of the pens (800 square feet), the number of pens that can be combined (no more than 2), the number of kelp blades per pound (allocated based on herring populations), to the maximum number of days herring may be kept in a pound (6) and the time of day the herring must be released by (midnight). Closed pounds produce kelp blades thickly coated with eggs.
Kelp blades coated in eggs hang in a closed pound. ©Juneau Empire
An open pound is a bit of an oxymoron - in this case the pound, or pen, does not exist. Open pounds consist of Macrocystis blades attached to platforms that are anchored where herring are predicted to spawn. Much like setting trees for the traditional harvest, collecting SOK using an open pound requires intimate knowledge of where the herring will or are spawning and a fair amount of luck to acquire a consistent product. Since the herring are not confined, open pound SOK produces a much thinner layer of eggs over the kelp blades.
Why are they so sustainable?
Pound fisheries are sustainable in much the same way that the traditional harvest is sustainable: the fishery does not actually harvest fish at all! As we have discussed, herring survivability from eggs to juveniles is incredibly variable. It is much more important to herring populations to leave more fish in the water than it is to leave more eggs in the water. As a result, pound fisheries have a much less detrimental effect on depressed herring stocks than seining does.
In another parallel to the traditional harvest, pound fisheries can create some additional habitat for eggs to develop in. All nets and gear must be left in the water for four weeks after the harvest occurs to let the the non-harvested eggs develop normally. Unfortunately, that time delay leads some people to leave their gear in the water all year, which is both illegal and a major source of contention in communities with limited mooring space.
Herring eggs on a net start to develop eyes. With luck, at least a few of these eggs will grow up to be adults. ©Captain Quinn
Open pound fisheries have one more sustainable advantage that their closed counterparts do not share: fish are left entirely to their own devices with open pounds. This, again, mimics the traditional fishery. Closed pounds, unfortunately, are not quite this low-impact. Schools of fish are seined or herded into rigid net cages (tow pounds), towed slowly alongside the boat to the standing net structure, and released. When this is done slowly and carefully stress on the fish is minimal, but there is a real risk of some fish trauma and mortality during transport. For that reason, while both closed and open pound fisheries are preferable to the sac-roe harvest, open pounds are the most environmentally friendly option.
What does the future hold?
Currently, pound fisheries only exist in four areas: Tenakee Inlet, Craig/Klawock, Hoonah Sound, and Ernst Sound. Due to low numbers of herring, only the Craig/Klawock pound fishery was opened this year. “If this fishery is so sustainable and non-disruptive to the fish,” you may ask, “why are so many of the pound fisheries closed this year?” While the number of eggs in the water is not the primary control of herring populations when talking about small numbers of eggs, the majority of the returning herring must still be allowed to spawn normally and their eggs left to develop. As with all fisheries, pound fisheries need a certain amount of product to be economic. If that product would be an unacceptably high percentage of the eggs laid that year or a there will not be a high enough concentration of fish, the fishery is closed.
The real hope for the future is that sac roe seiners in Sitka Sound are allowed to trade their permits for pound permits. That was the subject of a proposal to the State Board of Fisheries this year that generated quite a bit of interest within the Board. Unfortunately, that possibility is at least three years away. Any new fishery must first go through the Commercial Fisheries Entries Commission, then can seek approval from the Board of Fisheries. That means the proposal will not be reconsidered until 2018 at the earliest.
What does the future hold? Hopefully a lot more of this!
Is this something we would be excited about? Absolutely! Fishing is Sitka’s most important industry and, when well managed, is likely our most sustainable industry after tourism. Switching sac roe permits for open pound SOK permits recognizes this economic reality, while switching a less sustainable use of herring for a more sustainable one. What’s not to like?
Let’s cheer the pound fisheries on and get ready for the 2018 Board of Fisheries!
As we continue our tour through the more and less sustainable human uses of herring, we inevitably find ourselves moving from the good (traditional roe on branch harvests) to the bad: the sac roe fishery.
Sac roe, or unlaid herring eggs still in their skein (egg sack), is a delicacy in Japan known as kazunoko. The golden, pear-slice shaped egg skeins are beautiful additions to any sushi plate and have become a relatively high-status gift item for people to eat on New Years or other special occasions. Kazunoko used to be harvested locally, but the Hokkaido/Sakhalin stock collapsed in 1958. Now, most of those eggs come from Sitka. Only certain herring produce high quality kazunoko. As it turns out, Sitka Sound herring have perfect, golden egg skeins with no obvious veins. As we always suspected, we are the best!
We'll admit it - kazunoko is a tantalizingly appetizing product. But is it worth it?
So far this all sounds like just another standard fishery, but with the bonus of people eating the egg sacs too. That would be ideal. Unfortunately, it turns out that the sac roe fishery is astonishingly wasteful and is both directly and indirectly harmful to our salmon populations and fisheries.
But people eat salmon roe too. What makes this so different?
The primary difference between the salmon roe market and the sac roe market is that almost 100% of salmon meat goes to human consumption. “But people eat herring meat all the time!” you may protest. That’s true, but it’s a fraction of the total caught. As discussed, most Sitka Sound herring goes to Japan to supply kazunoko. The Japanese also eat herring meat, but prefer larger fish according to Dr. Shingo Hamada’s recent talk at UAS. Those larger fish come from Togiak, from the North Atlantic, or from the Barents Sea near Norway.
Fair enough. But what exactly makes you label this fishery as “bad” on your sustainability scale?
First, though we mentioned that exports are nothing new to Southeast Alaska, they’re a lot better for our local economies if we can do some of the processing within the region. Much like exporting old-growth trees in the round provides very few jobs beyond local lumberjacks, the way we export herring does not provide many economic opportunities for anyone beyond the fishermen themselves. Kazunoko is a labor intensive and expensive product to extract, so we ship frozen whole fish to Japan to be sorted by sex and dissected. The cost of additional processing here may be too high for the market to bear, but that’s certainly nothing to celebrate here in Sitka.
Industrial sac roe production (left) vs. roe extraction done by local middle school students at this year's Herring Camp. Next year, we'll be sure to put those kids to work!
Secondly, and more egregiously, since our herring are only prized for their sac roe, this fishery collects ~88% bycatch by weight! Why so high? If the meat of our exported fish is not being eaten by people (it isn’t), then the targeted product is only present in 50% of the fish caught, the females, and only makes up about a quarter of their weights at the most. This year was one of the most successful years for our fishermen in terms of roe percentage - up to 14% according to the seiners. Only 86% bycatch! It’s pretty hard to spin such a small reduction in the bycatch amount positively.
If that didn’t make you angry, what happens with that bycatch certainly will. After the kazunoko has been extracted from our herring, the remainder are ground into fish meal. “That’s better than nothing!” you might say. Indeed, it’s certainly preferable to simply dumping the waste, but fish meal should come from actual fishery waste, such as halibut heads, rather than from a wasteful fishery. In this case, the cloud’s silver lining fails disguise all the rain.
A successful set in this year's harvest! Too bad 86% of that biomass goes to waste or to farmed fish.
Fishmeal gets fed to farmed tilapia, shrimp, and salmon all over the world - fish that often compete directly against our wild stocks. This is a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Our wild salmon have their preferred dinners seined up, frozen, and sent across the Pacific, where they go to feed farmed salmon somewhere else. That’s a lot of expense and fuel consumption to recreate a food chain that already exists right here in Sitka Sound.
“All in all we’re advocating for more conservative management … we think herring are worth more feeding the ecosystem than they are feeding farmed salmon. We think we need to do a better job, a more conservative job of managing the resource.” -Jeff Feldpausch, Director of the Resource Protection Department, Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
In an ironic, but all-too-typical economic twist, Alaska actually imports fish meal to feed its hatchery salmon. It’s not just a little bit of fish meal, either. Alaska spends $20 million/year to get that feed, primarily from South America. Alaskan salmon do love Peruvian anchovies, but it’s hard to make the argument that the salmon enjoy them more than the Pacific herring they’ve evolved over millennia to eat. At the very least, the bycatch from this inefficient fishery should go directly to our hatchery salmon, giving them back the meals we’ve removed from the local ocean.
Is there any good news?
There are a few bright spots. First, the Sitka Sound Sac Roe Fishery is exclusively a seine fishery. The alternative possible gear in this case would be gillnets, but gillnets do not allow for any live releasing and they increase the potential for non-herring bycatch. Catch and release with seine nets is not without fish stress and mortality, but it definitely beats the near complete mortality and commitment associated with gillnets. Of course, that catch and release temptation can lead captains to “high-grade”, or release sets without a high roe content, but ADF&G Area Biologist Dave Gordon explicitly warned seiners this year against doing that. Seining over gillnetting is not great news, but we’ll take what we can get.
Secondly, we can be happy that our harvest rate is considerably less aggressive than herring harvest rates in Europe. The Barents Sea herring fishery, controlled by Norway, considers harvesting 30%-40% of the biomass to be both conservative and sustainable. Our harvest rate is set between 12% and 20% of the biomass. Does that mean we’re in no danger of overfishing? In a word, no. The only Southeast Alaskan herring stock that still manages to support a herring fishery is Sitka Sound, down from Hobart Bay, Lynn Canal, Auke Bay, Kah Shakes, West Behm Canal in previous decades. Our own stocks are on a pretty significant downward trend, with this year’s quota the lowest since 2003. Is this downward trend due to the commercial fishery? Fish and Game believes that it’s due to low ocean survivability (ocean acidification? global warming?). It’s easy to imagine the fishery being the straw that breaks this camel’s back, though, and with it, the backbone of our marine ecosystem.
Yes, we are more conservative than Norway. No, it does not mean we can rest easy.
How can we improve this?
First, let’s find better things to do with that bycatch than to feed it to Malaysian farmed fish. Best case? We start eating the herring ourselves. If that’s not palatable, let’s at least stop exporting fish meal to feed other nations’ aquaculture projects while simultaneously importing fish meal to feed our own. This is inefficient, carbon intensive, and detrimental to both our wild and NSRAA-supplied salmon. It’s wrong, and it needs to stop.
Second, let’s stop eating sac roe in the first place. Why not consume roe on kelp instead? All of the deliciousness of herring eggs without the unwelcome spice of guilt.
Finally, let’s consider the possibility that we are overfishing our stock and consider reducing our harvest rate. Forage fish are worth much more left in the water than they are on the market. Let’s bow to economic and ecosystem pressures and leave more herring where they belong: feeding salmon and whales in Sitka Sound.
Whales feasting on herring © Bethany Goodrich
Herring milt fills bays in Sitka Sound. As the water turns white, traditional harvesters set their branches.
If the hundreds of circling eagles, dozens of bubble-netting whales, and armadas of fishing boats didn’t already make this obvious, the most important and controversial marine resource in Southeast Alaska has returned - the herring. Huzzah! Across Sitka Sound, seiners play out their nets, traditional harvesters lay their branches, and kids jig for small fish in the harbors.
Why all this hullabaloo over only one type of fish? We could go on (and have) about herring’s importance to the marine ecosystem. Their importance cannot be overstated. But herring aren’t just important for growing salmon - humans rely on them as well!
You could argue that the health of the marine ecosystem easily trumps any economic benefits we may get from herring harvesting. That argument has been made, and compellingly so. But let’s engage in some productive narcissism for the moment. Let’s only consider the ways that we humans use herring. Even considering our own wants first and foremost, it still behooves us to think about the sustainability of our herring-related harvest.
As it turns out, our harvest of herring and herring eggs spans quite a large swath of the sustainability spectrum, from the good to the bad to the (not so) ugly.
Good news first! The traditional herring egg harvest.
While Sitka boasts gorgeous mountain ranges and beautiful natural harbors, it was the herring that made this a desirable place to live thousands of years ago. Herring eggs were one of the first fresh sources of spring protein and were widely traded across Alaska. That trade didn’t stop with the colonial period; even today, Sitka Sound herring eggs can be found as far north as Barrow! Herring eggs continue to be an important special food item and appear at most potlatches and community events.
What exactly is the traditional harvest?
Herring lay their eggs in the shallows just below the low-tide line. The sticky eggs attach to the seafloor, to kelp, and to strategically placed hemlock branches. For thousands of years, Tlingit people from all over Southeast Alaska attached young hemlock branches or trees to anchors just before the herring started spawning. Hemlock is used because it doesn’t impart flavor to the eggs, and it’s also an incredibly efficient surface to collect eggs on. A fully loaded tree can easily hold up to 1,000 pounds of eggs! After 2-4 days underwater, branches are retrieved and the eggs are pulled off. Eggs are eaten fresh or frozen for future use.
The traditional harvest also includes some spawn on kelp (SOK), although roe on branches makes up more than 90% of the typical traditional harvest. Herring eggs will settle on whatever is available, including hair kelp and Macrocystis kelp. SOK is gathered either from boats or from the shorelines with long rakes. Macrocystis SOK is also a commercial product harvested in “pound fisheries,” but that's a future story.
What makes the traditional harvest so sustainable?
First, it’s very small. Tlingit traditional harvesters commonly advocate taking only as much as they need, but true sustainability comes from taking only as much as the ecosystem can support. Happily, the Amount Necessary for Subsistence, the State’s assessment of how many pounds of herring eggs are necessary to satisfy traditional demand throughout Alaska, is well below the carrying capacity of Sitka Sound.
Second, the traditional harvest leaves the herring themselves completely unmolested. The survival rate of herring from eggs to adults has been calculated to range between 1 and 6500 per 1,000,000 eggs, a massively variable amount! Ideally, the more eggs in the water, the more herring in the water, but that enormous variability in survival rates means that egg deposition is not the primary control on herring populations. Fewer herring taken from the water, however, means much more to the population. As a bonus, branches that are lost or otherwise not worth recovering (too little spawn, too much debris) provide excellent habitat for those eggs to develop, but that perk is well overshadowed by the benefits of giving adult herring the chance to spawn another year.
It is! We’re lucky to have such a connection to past populations here. We’re luckier still to live in a place that allows us to live with (rather than off) the land and sea. With as much as 95% of our food coming from elsewhere, it’s refreshing to see such a sustainable, culturally-rich use of a local resource.
May the traditional harvest of herring eggs inspire us to gather more local foods in just as sustainable a manner.