Learning about Place : What Herring Eggs Have Taught Me

No season has it’s markers like Spring. The “first of spring” events which mark our regions are cherished by those who live there and bring joy, warmth, fresh sounds, and fresh colors. Since living in Hoonah, Alaska for four years no spring event has taught me more about a place, its people, and myself than the annual herring egg distribution every April. These small eggs, laid by silvery fish are at the center of culture and politics, science and business, and celebration and uncertainty.

The Delivery

Rain showers had been passing through during the morning of April 9th, and there was obvious relief from the growing crowd when they stopped only minutes before the “Shirley N” came into sight and made its way to Hoonah’s dock. For the last week the Shirley N had been in Sitka, Alaska laying branches of Hemlock in the water. Spawning herring had deposited their eggs on the branches and the Shirley N was bringing them to Hoonah’s expectant crowds. Audible joy and utters started as soon as the first load came from hold of the ship. It had been an abundant year thanks to the skill of the crew and there would be plenty for all! The branches were thick with spawn and each laden bow brought new smiles as they were stashed away. The atmosphere of the day is the primary reason I make sure never to miss the Shirley N’s return.

The Shirley N Docks in Hoonah to an expectant crowd.
Herring Eggs, Hoonah, Harvest, Subsistence
A totem laden with Herring eggs is brought out of the hull of the Shirley N.

Smiling Faces

I have been meaning to write this article since April 9th – it’s now July 14th. I’m honestly glad I waited 3 months before completing this entry. It has changed my focus and intent completely. After reviewing my images I noticed one thing : all of the smiling faces. These are not “fake smiles” for a watching photographer. Rather, they are smiles from both youth and adults which are truly happy to be in that place at that time. Each smile shows someone enjoying the beautiful day, abundant harvest, anticipation of fresh food, and celebration of culture. These smiles capture the true feeling of the day and embody what it means to be in Hoonah : celebrating seasons and fresh food from the ocean. This is my fourth time participating in the eggs coming in, and I look forward to it more eagerly each time because of the emotions it brings out of Hoonah!

What’s So Good About Them?

If you have not had Herring Eggs before this article would be very hard to relate to. You may be thinking “what’s so good about them?”, “what do they taste like?”, and “how do you use them?”. I’ll do my best to help you understand, but I hope you have a chance to try them yourself someday! Simply learning to enjoy them and prepare them has taught me so much about Hoonah and their importance in culture.

Herring Eggs hang from a Hemlock branch.
  1. Herring eggs are simply good for you. They are salty and fresh and depending on whether they are on kelp or branches have a totally different taste. The kelp adds a saltier, earthier taste while the tang of citrus is wonderful from the branches. They are half protein, a quarter carbs, and a quarter fat. You cannot beat that! Those stats are a key reason they were relied on by coastal peoples since time immemorial.
  2. Herring Eggs are eaten fresh, par-boiled from the branches, pickled, canned, frozen, and eaten on herring egg salads. Their consumption in the spring is important but so is their use in the autumn during “pay off parties”. These parties are celebrations thanking family members and the opposite clan in town for taking care of funeral arrangements and costs for elders who have passed in the year. No payoff party would be complete without herring eggs.
A large mass of herring eggs. When you have this many they are wonderful to chew through! Each pops in your mouth and tastes salty and fresh.

Changing Times

The fate of the herring fishery is unknown. Its future lays in between the politics of the state and tribes, firmly wedged between the interests of the commercial sac-roe industry and needs of subsistence harvesters. If that doesn’t seem complicated enough, all of those factors are only exacerbated by ocean change driven by climate change. Struggling herring runs which have traditionally fed communities for hundreds of years have created enormous tension between communities, tribes, commercials industry, and the state fishery managers. Newspaper headlines of “Tribes sue state” are juxtaposed against “Harvest quota unchanged” and highlight the integral problem in this issue : subsistence fishers feel the commercial industry is highly impacting herring, however state management has been unmoving in how their models determine sustainable yield. This is despite harvests falling short of quota (due to lack of fish) in 2018, 2016, 2013, 2012, and no commercial sac-roe harvest in 2019.

For me the issue and cut and dried. These fish and their delivery to Hoonah has taught me the importance of fighting for small communities in big issues. It has demonstrated to me first hand how bad science can trickle down to dramatic effects. Collapsing herring stocks hurt communities, fisheries, whales, and entire ecosystems. I will stand in solidarity and protest with the Tribes and communities impacted by the extortion and extraction of this resource by outside interests.

Members of Hoonah stand around eagerly for the next load of Herring eggs.

It is unknown what 2020 will bring for Herring. There will be more legal battles and (with some optimism) hopefully change to sustainably manage this culturally and ecologically important resource. I look eagerly forward to it knowing it will welcome in yet another spring and another opportunity to enjoy what the season can offer.

A community elder hauls a load of Herring eggs up the city dock while many more people await eggs for their homes.

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