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.