The First Fish
After winter’s thaw and before salmon return to their natal rivers an important, silver fish appears by the millions along the northwest coast of North America. Spawning Pacific Herring provide a kickstart to the bounty of Southeast Alaska. Their oily flesh provides critical protein for migrating seabirds and returning whales and their eggs provide needed food to migrating shorebirds which have flown thousands of miles from their winter grounds. When herring spawn in abundance they attract abundance.
The Morning As It Happened
I didn’t set out with a group of friends at 4:15AM on a clear day in Alaska in pursuit of herring. Actually, it was for birds. The “Global Big Day” is an opportunity for birders around the world to submit what they see over 24 hours to a global database which tracks and counts birds. Even if you are not a birder, you probably know that early mornings have the highest bird activity – have you ever had them wake you up?
We arrived at our destination, stepped from our cars, and began to walk down a local trail. The sun burst on the horizon and its warmth only inflamed the calls of the birds. Townsend’s Warblers, thrushes, juncos, hummingbirds, and so many more! As we reached the tide flats about 20 minutes later we saw a large collection of the symbol of United States – the Bald Eagle. As it is unusual to see them in such large numbers I was curious to know why they gathered. With camera in hand I shifted my focus to that group of birds which were nearly a mile away on the coastline
The walk was longer than it looked! It took 20 minutes to get closer to the eagles and as our path wound down an estuary river we began to see what the fuss was all about : flashing herring were spawning in the rockweed. Other pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place. Looking out at the ocean a large pack of Stellar’s Sealions patrolled the water, twelve harbor seals floated nearby, gulls passed over head continuously, a flock of Least Sandpipers flew by squeaking and squawking, and a Humpback Whale glided through the water only a few feet from the shore. They were here for one reason only – the abundant food.
Herring As Food
There are about 290 calories per fillet (143g) of herring and 26% of your daily intake of fat. For wildlife they are nutrient powerhouses worth working for. Diving seabirds specialize in capturing them and Humpback Whales have perfected scooping them up in their huge mouth. However, very little effort was needed to catch herring this day. Some of the herring were trapped by the receding tide and flopped on the rockweed. All around us were torn and mangled bodies of fish had been eaten by the swarms of eagles, gulls, and ravens through the night. The Humpback Whale lunge-fed dozens of times on the spawning herring as we watched.
Abundance. From Abundance.
The film below showcases what we saw that morning. I hope it gives you a sense of place and a connection to the importance of herring and the necessity of keeping them abundant. The images below show off just a small slice of the wildlife frenzy around the herring that morning.
Abundance is created from abundance. I was so fortunate to watch these sites unfold before my eyes. It caused me to reflect on the importance of a healthy herring population. Healthy herring populations create thriving fishing industries, maintain bustling eco-tourism opportunities through whale watching and other marine activities, provide food for wildlife, and provide the continuation of the cultural practices of coastal people that have relied on them since time immemorial. As the base of the food chain a healthy herring population is critical for a thriving ecosystem that provides for people and wildlife. Here’s the catch – not all herring populations are healthy.
Herring need your help – they need you to care about them. They are in decline due to overfishing and changes in the ocean. Particularly harmful is the sac roe fisheries which net up herring right before spawning when they are the most vulnerable. The sac roe fishery is highly profitable and creates a luxury food item – herring roe – for mainly Asian markets. Herring fisheries have a history of collapsing under industrial fishing pressure. With marked declines in SE Alaska and Canadian herring population occurring, that knowledge alone makes it impossible for me to support an industry that creates a luxury item and supports only a small portion of the fishing fleet. I do not believe the cost (loss of other fishing industries, marine mammal reduction, seabird die offs) are nearly worth the benefit (a luxury item). I encourage you to do your research on this topic, but believe we need to err on the side of caution and halt fisheries that harvest at the bottom of the food chain. If you believe what I am saying rings true then please consider advocating to your representative or joining your voice to Herring Advocacy Groups.