Tag Archives: Herring

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.

Herrings vs. Eagles – Eagles Win and the Photographer Did Too

Arguably herring are the base of the entire food chain in Southeast Alaska. They provide food for whales, salmon, seals, sealions, birds, and halibut with their bodies and with their eggs. For centuries humans have relied on the abundance of herring to provide for their families in the spring.¬† In Hoonah, Alaska the return of herring marks a change in the a season and a bounty of fresh eggs brings a welcome smile to the elders and community members that receive them. However, in recent years the herring run has not bee large in Hoonah although anecdotally (and a bit facetiously) you could “walk across their backs to Pitt Island” only a couple decades ago. Ocean changes, over fishing, and habitat loss have all contributed to decreasing herring returns and fewer spawning fish in recent years. This knowledge made me feel particularly fortunate to get to see herring spawning in Hoonah and watch the harshness of nature unfold before my eyes as Bald Eagle scooped the silvery fish from the ocean.

Herring, Underwater, GoPro, Alaska, Hoonah
A ball of herring mill about in Hoonah, Alaska.

Spawning herring rely on seaweed and objects in the water to glue their eggs to. Spawning females mix with males and each emit eggs and roe into the water. A sure sign that herring are spawning is a milky, blue water that combines the colors of the ocean and the white of the roe. The need to stick their eggs to seaweed brings the herring close to shore and thus susceptible to predation. As I walked near Cannery Point in Hoonah, Alaska over 30 eagles (a mix of juveniles and adults) lined up on the beach. The color of the water  and brilliant flashes of silver near the shore left little doubt on what they were feeding on!Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

A string of eagles wait for spawning herring at the beach.

Herring, Eggs, Hemlock, Alaska, Subsistence
Herring egg harvesters use branches of Hemlock to capture herring eggs. They lay the branches in the water where herring are spawning and then collect the branches which are (hopefully) laden with eggs.

Trial and Error

One of the first things I noticed was the juvenile eagles were watching the adults very closely. They knew they had a lot to learn, and there was no doubt after several minutes of watching that the adults were much more efficient at catching the herring. Most of the adults would launch from the beach, strafe their talons on the water’s surface and come up with one or two herring. Some eagles opted for a higher vantage point and flew in from the trees on the embankment. Another strategy was to simply stand on a rock or in the water and hope to catch one in without flapping a wing. All of these strategies produced herring for the eagles and the juveniles mimicked them perfectly.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
A young eagle feeds from the rocks instead of flying for its meal.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
A eagle goes in deep with its talons in the quest for herring.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
A strafing run of an eagle successfully captures a herring.

Meals on the Wing

Even though there was an abundance of herring one strategy of some eagles was to steal from those that were successful. The fierce competition from other birds forced successful eagles to eat very quickly and on the wing. Almost all of the eagles would transfer the herring to their beaks and then orient the fish head first before finally swallowing it hole. This occurred in just a few seconds to remove any chance of pestering, marauding eagles from stealing their catch. I did get to watch once instance where an eagle successfully scooped two herring at once, but did not eat them on the wing. Immediately three other eagles (2 adults and a juvenile) put up chase resulting in the eagle dropping one herring to get rid of the pestilence following it.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

Two eagles settle a small squabble over who gets some beach space.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

It was incredible to watch the eagles feed on the herring and learn from their behaviors, but as a photographer I was grateful for the frequent and repeated attempts by the eagles to capture herring. I had the opportunity to tinker with camera settings and capture a lot of shots that are high quality and showcase the slice of foodweb that I was only a spectator to.

Bald eagle, photography, alaska, herring, panning
This is my favorite shot from the day. I slowed my shutter speed down and then tracked the eagle as it flew to a perch. The face and claws remained tack sharp and I achieved blur in the wings and the background.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
This shot is a close second! I cannot believe the symmetry that these two eagles have as they flew away, or that they both caught herring!

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
My third favorite shot of the day. The one that got away!

Parting Shots

Here’s a last few shots. I hope you enjoy!

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska