Herring: Small Fish, Big Impact

For this region, Pacific herring represent Robin Redbreast, the Great Plains buffalo and “The Goose That Laid The Golden Egg” combined.

Each spring, millions of these small fish return to the inshore waters around Sitka Sound, to deposit billions of eggs. Timed in the days right around Vernal Equinox, the entire food chain wakes up with the arrival of the vast shoals, what herring schools are called. Herring spawn along the West Coast from the Gulf of Alaska all the way south to Baja California.

To someone looking from shore, an underwater school of herring can easily be identified by the seagulls circling above and bobbing on the surface of the water, the sea lions literally bathing in shiny silver fish, the humpback whales turned to great scoops as they spring up from the depths —  mouth agape — to score hundreds of fish in one gigantic gulp. No wonder that Sitkans, looking at such a display of ravenous ocean wildlife, refer to the herring simply as “feed.”

It is said that salmon make a silver band around the northern climes of the world. From the Irish to the Japanese — and the people at all points in between, including Alaska — salmon, and their solemn promise to return each year in abundance, have found a central place in the cultures of humanity.  Less celebrated, but no less important, have been herring. Herring winter in the ocean depths, but return inshore annually to spawn.

Atlantic herring, along with cod, have been a mainstay of the European diet for centuries. References to the great shoals of herring can be found in Danish artifacts dating back 5,000 years. More recently, herring became regular fare for the middle-class and poorer people of Europe, who were allowed only fish on Lenten and other religious days, which took up a goodly portion of the calendar. The rich ate their fish fresh.

“From the 16th to 18th Centuries,” writes Mark Kurlansky in his excellent history, Salt, “An estimated 60 percent of all fish eaten by Europeans was cod, but a significant portion of the remaining 40 percent was herring.” Herring, like cod, was eaten dried and salted, with herring  more commonly cured in barrels in a salt or pickled brine because of its higher oil content.

Even today, in the cosmopolitan cities of the Netherlands, the return of the first herring of the season (nieuwe or “new” herring) is trumpeted in the media. Fine restaurants pay thousands of Euros in premiums to be able to serve the year’s first catch. But the later harvest is sold far more cheaply, often at open air stalls. “The Dutch like to eat their herring in the street,” writes Dutch author Han van der Horst. “In Amsterdam, they use a small fork to pick up small pieces of fillet from a cardboard plate, but in the rest of the country the fish is grasped by the tail and devoured with relish. The stall will often have a bowl of chopped raw onions through which the herring is first `passed’ to make it even more delicious.” Van der Horst says “relish” to mean “enthusiasm” and not “condiment.”

In Alaska, there is little enthusiasm about eating herring flesh, with or without condiments –  in fact, a Tlingit Indian friend of this writer shivered at the prospect. In Southeast, whole herring  most commonly serve as bait. Among Tlingits,  herring eggs are the prize. Hemlock boughs placed in the shallows at just the right time can be retrieved covered with thousands of eggs. The springtime herring egg harvest was an important part of the economic and social wealth of this area’s Tlingits before Europeans came and remains so to this day. Herring eggs from Sitka are still traded throughout the state and Western Canada.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the other great lover of herring eggs can be found. The Japanese prize kazunoko — made from the crescent-shaped egg sacs of female herring about to deposit her eggs. Caught just before, these intact sacs are eaten fresh or preserved in brine. Eating kazunoko on New Year’s will help ensure abundance and luck  for the following year. Newlyweds eat the delicacy to promote fertility.

In the late 1970’s, the Sitka Sound Sac Roe Fishery was developed  to take advantage of the lucrative kazunoko market. Limited to 52 permit holders, the seiners involved have harvested a combined catch worth upward of $10 million. And, because of the natural dense concentration of fish and the wide effort made to target the most fertile shoals, the whole fishery may take less than one hour. A series of fifteen-minute long openings — or fishing periods — is not unusual in this fishery.

Only the Sitka Sound fishery can out muscle the seagulls. When the fishing is underway, more than 200 vessels of all sizes may be packed in an area of a square mile or less. Besides the 50-odd seiners, there are floating tenders to receive the catch and begin processing, countless skiffs to help handle the nets, Coast Guard and state enforcement vessels and the inevitable onlookers. The air above is filled with spotter planes. Seine captains over-intent on the catch have been known to crash their vessels into one another or onto the rocks during the frantic fishery.

Biologists who monitor the Sac Roe fishery  refer to the Sitka areas stocks as healthy, despite the fact that Sitka seiners annually take 20 percent of entire herring population. Native elders tell a different story — they say today’s spawning is but a fraction of that seen in the decades before the Sac Roe fishery. Just last year, state fisheries managers began to consult with Native leaders to minimize the effects of commercial fisheries on the subsistence herring egg harvest. And the seiners themselves are discussing strategies to make less of an impact on the herring stocks.

North of Sitka Sound, for instance, roe-on-kelp fishermen hang kelp fronds in floating net enclosures, called pounds. Herring carefully added to the pounds spawn on the kelp – resulting in another product prized by the Japanese. And these roe-on-kelp fish are released at the end of the process, to spawn another year. By contrast, herring in the traditional sac roe fishery are killed when the eggs are removed.

Just about everything that eats in this part of the world eats herring – or it eats something else that eats herring. Without herring, the ecosystem would collapse. In addition to the Sac Roe fishery, the herring are pressured by shoreside development in spawning areas, increased marine traffic and pollution. If over fished and disrespected, Sitka Sound herring may one day disappear, like the buffalo. If harvested sustainably, herring could remain the silver fish that, year after year,  gives up billions of golden eggs.