Tag Archives: Herring

Abundance. From Abundance : Spawning Herring

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.

Herring, Kelp, Herring Eggs, Rockweed
A spawned-out herring lies among the rockweed in an estuary of SE Alaska.
Humpback Whale, Spawning, Herring, Alaska
This Humpback Whale is feeding on thousands of herring gathered in the mouth of an estuary.

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?

Sunrise, old growth, tongass
We arrived at our destination right as the sun broke over the horizon and streamed through the old growth of the Tongass.

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

Eagle, Herring, Alaska
This was only one group of the many eagles that congregated on the beach. There were four groups equally as large as this one spread across 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

Herring, tide, trapped
These herring were trapped by the receding tide. Eagles, gulls, and ravens were able to scoop up as many as their bellies could hold.

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.

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