Herring Synthesis: Documenting and Modeling Herring Spawning Areas within Socio-Ecological Systems Over Time in the Southeastern Gulf of Alaska

Ethnographic Synthesis: Cultural Significance and Management of Herring

Oral History

The earliest knowledge and practices associated with Pacific herring in Southeast Alaska come to us through Alaska Natives. Southeast Alaska Native space and time were to a significant extent coordinated by herring. In addition to being among the first “fruits” of the spring, thus marking the change of season and the coming of the summer fishing season, herring massing and spawning areas were also widely distributed throughout the Southeast region. Indeed, every one of the 13 contemporary Tlingit and Haida community spaces, or kwáan, historically possessed one or more significant spawning areas for herring (see Figure 1.1 Approximate Locations of Southeast Alaska Kwáan Territories). The presence of herring, in turn, attracted other key species, including halibut, salmon, and seals, which Natives harvested in quantity. There is even evidence from elsewhere on the central Northwest Coast (Monks 1987) that herring were used as live “bait,” for example through confinement in pens or stone traps, in order to attract other species (see archaeology section). Although we found no direct evidence for this in our interviews, the archaeological synthesis suggests that herring may have been trapped for food, if not bait in pre-contact times. Overall, we found strong evidence that “herring were among the important schooling fish. In fact, it is certain that herring was more important than present [scientific] evidence suggests" (Ames and Maschner 117:1999). Native peoples distributed themselves among dense and predictable patches of herring according to the timing of their presence, just as they did with prize salmon streams, halibut banks, and berry patches. In doing so, they also took advantage of the rich supplies of other prey attracted to this foundational food source, such as birds, salmon, halibut, cod, and marine mammals. Overall, Pacific herring can be considered “cultural keystone species” among Southeast Natives, according to criteria outlined by Garibaldi and Turner (2004), including its: 1) intensity, cultivation, and multiplicy of use, 2) rich linguisitic and 3) cultural associations, 4) persistence in memory and use despite cultural change, 5) unique and irreplaceable role in socioecological system, and 6) value in providing opportunities for resource acquisition beyond the home territory (e.g., through exchange).

Learning to Harvest and Cultivate Herring

Herring have been harvested for roe, oil, meat, and bait from the earliest recorded histories of the Northwest Coast. Oral historical records emphasize that herring eggs were highly valued and sought after as a food. Herring were particularly prized because they were present throughout the year in select places, unlike the more migratory salmon, and also because they returned to near shore spawning areas in late winter and early spring at precisely the time when winter food stores were running low and fresh sources of meat, oil, and protein were at a premium. As several sources point out (e.g., Herman Kitka for Sitka and O. M. Salisbury for Klawock), as much as two to three months before spawning in late March or early April, herring might be present in spawning bays in vast quantities, where they could be raked, jigged, netted, or trapped to be eaten fresh, smoked, or rendered into oil.

Lily White of Hoonah tells of how herring eggs were first “discovered” as a food by Hoonah Tlingits, who were facing hunger and privation.
When our people came down from Glacier Bay, after that ice age, they started settling over here on Chichagof Island. And after the ice age, they had two winters [perhaps in the early 1800s when a volcanic eruption in Indonesia darkened skies]. And starvation came among the people. And that’s when they saw this spawning of herrings up Neka Bay. They said they didn’t know what it was. It just looked milky. And they put stuff in there like a branch, when they take it out it just thick. They recognized herring eggs because when they opened herrings it’d be in there. That’s when they first tried eating it because of starvation. And there’s a lot of things that they sampled to eat. My mom said some of the things they sampled to eat killed some people because starvation was awful. After the two winters they had nothing to eat. They ate everything that they could possibly get their hands on and that’s when they got introduced to eating herring eggs. They didn’t know which way to do it. They cut branches and got them together with roots and they just hold it in there a little while. Now they keep it overnight. They pull it up--it is just thick with that herring eggs. And they start using it for food. And they started drying it also. Drying it and eat it like one would dry salmon, and they found that it was very, very delicious. And they started going up there; they found out that it spawns in the spring. So that’s how our people got introduced to the herring eggs.

Early Non-Native Accounts of Herring Fishing

Early visitors to Southeast Alaska and ethnographers of the Tlingit describe herring spawning in detail. These accounts are summarized in Schroeder and Kookesh (1990) and other sources. Many of the earliest accounts of herring fishing are centered in Sitka. An example is Marchard, who visited as part of his 1790-92 voyage (Fleurieu, 1969), and wrote “The principle food of the natives of Tchinkitanay [Sitka Tlingit] is fish, fresh or smoked, the dried spawn of fish, of which they make a sort of cakes, and the flesh of the animals that they kill.”

An excellent, detailed account of herring production in the late 19th and early twentieth century is provided by George Emmons (Emmons and de Laguna 1991:117- 119). He describes the basic harvesting methods and substrates used. Interestingly, though well aware of Sitka’s famous herring spawn, Emmons also identifies other important herring areas, such as Angoon’s Kootznoowoo Inlet. This detailed account is noteworthy in that it highlights Sitka as a dominant locale for egg production and Angoon for oil production. Emmons’ account also lists the dominant subsistence methods and means of processing. He does not discuss the use of herring for bait, however, which has been a major use of the species since pre-contact times.

Variations on traditional harvesting and processing techniques are further described by Lisianski (1814:239) and others (see Schroeder and Kookesh 1990) for Sitka, George and Bosworth (1988) for Angoon, de Laguna for Angoon and Yakutat, (1960, 1972), Newton and Moss (2005) for Angoon, Kake, and Hoonah, Thornton (1997) for Juneau, Ellanna and Sherrod (1986) and Salisbury (1962:151-162) for Klawock, Victor-Howe (2008) for Hydaburg, Oberg (1973:69) for Klukwan and Haines, and Firman and Bosworth (1990) for Kake, and Cohen (1989) for Wrangell. These studies reveal important local and regional differences in Native production, such as the Hydaburg-Craig-Klawock preference for roe on kelp, the Sitka preference for roe on branches, and the association of Angoon with herring oil production. Modern studies, such as those by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, Division of Subsistence, also highlight changes to herring schools and subsistence patterns, such as the advent of preserving eggs through freezing, and of shipping eggs in large quantities on private vessels or via transport companies, such as Alaska Airlines (Schroeder and Kookesh 1990).

Other Patterns of Production and Use of Herring

The production of fresh herring in fall and wintertime for meat, bait, and oil underscores the fact that herring were important year round. For those places that enjoyed year round schools, herring could be taken almost any time. Again patterns varied by area. In Sitka, herring oil was rendered in fall and in February and early March when herring moved into Sitka Sound for spawning (Herman Kitka). In Juneau and Klawock, oil was produced from late fall through spring (before spawning). Oil rendering is more productive in the fall because the fat content of herring is higher (Cobb 1906:21). As George Jim of Angoon states, “In September, October, and November, it is the time of contentment and happiness among the Tlingit people, for it is harvest time. Deer, goat, sheep, bear, king salmon, herrings, every species of salmon is fat, ready to be harvested, and plentiful” (Newton and Moss 2005: 2).

While oil, eggs, and sometimes smoked meat were traded, herring waste and offal were retained as fertilizer for family gardens, an important post-contact development in the food economies of Northwest Coast Natives. Sandy, loose, or spoiled eggs and dead herring (i.e., those mortally exhausted or wounded by predators during spawning) might be exploited for fertilizer. This is still the case in Sitka, as Roby Littlefield explains: Traditional use, modern use, right here by Halibut Point Rec[reation Area], the town-ward side of it is a very nice stone beach … and after the herring spawn--we get big spawn during a storm, a lot of the eggs don’t, aren’t able to attach to anything so that’s when I like to go down there with a wheelbarrow. I go down there with my boat and just beach it on the white beach and just fill up buckets and buckets of herring eggs that didn’t attach and there’s just like sand dunes or egg dunes of it. Yeah. Those are really good for fertilizer.

Local and Traditional Knowledge and Adaptive Management

The variety of techniques Natives developed to harvest herring and their year-round use of the species suggests that it was a staple resource, rather than a luxury, and also focal point of cultural development. Along with salmon, it has been said that “Herring are the ‘staff of life’ for them” (Salisbury 1962:155). Critical fishing technologies, knowledge, and skills were built up through interactions with herring and efforts to enhance supply and regulate demand at various scales suitable to the particular locality. This knowledge, innovation, and social learning (Berkes 2008) allowed Native peoples of Southeast Alaska to harvest herring sustainably from pre-contact times to the present. This process of “strategic learning-by-doing or quasi experimental approach to the management of natural resources encouraged by institutional flexibility” is termed by Armitage et al. (2007:328) as adaptive management.

Table 2.1 summarizes the key traditional resource management strategies exhibited by Southeast Alaska Natives in terms of supply and demand techniques, with examples drawn from the analysis above. Techniques to manage supply include technologies of preservation and storage, trade and exchange, habitat conservation, habitat cultivation, return of selected egg deposits, transplantation, and efficiency
innovations. On the demand side, key techniques include territoriality, mobility, prescriptions and prohibitions, prey choice, substrate choice, and sabotage or sanction of high-demand harvesters or hoarders.

Supply Side

Demand Side

Preservation and storage (drying, freezing, etc to temporally redistribute supply)

Territoriality (to prevent damage to spawning stocks and their habitats)

Trade and exchange (e.g., herring eggs for eulachon oil to spatially redistribute supply)

Mobility (e.g., redistribute people in relation to resources threatened with overexploitation)

Habitat conservation (e.g., of spawning grounds to insure sustained reproduction)

Prescriptions and taboos (quieting the spawning area, inviting the herring in, and not harvesting eggs after dark, “The Watchman,” etc.)

Habitat cultivation (e.g.,  placing branches or other substrate to increase spawning in certain areas)

Predator control (e.g., of sea lions preying on spawning herring)

Return of viable egg deposits (e.g., placing thinner egg deposits back in the productive “band” of intertidal area for hatching)

Prey choice (e.g., switching to seal oil when herring become too sparse to harvest; or choosing not to harvest an egg deposition)

Transplantation (of eggs to new areas or to restore old areas)

Substrate choice (switching from kelp to another substrate if kelp beds are stressed)

Efficiency innovation (consumption of “mash,” etc.)

Sabotage/sanction of hoarders (e.g., freeing herring from overcrowded pounds that wastefully destroy fish)


Using LTK and Historical Ecology to Assess Healthy Spawning Areas

In every community we visited we listened to people describe how herring had declined in the days of the reduction plants and failed to fully recover. Martin Perez sums up the situation for southern Southeast Alaska,
"Well, the herring population now is just a drop compared to what it used to be. We had herring all through here, all through the—so far south, we went through herring: schools and schools of herring in my young days. Even as far down as—I fished down, way down, all the way down to Washington, Oregon. But the herring up in this country all the way down into Hecate Straits-that’s Canadian waters--all the way up to above Juneau and all over. I remember when there was schools and schools of herring. Now we don’t see that any more." Like many elders Mr. Perez takes a long view in his assessment of the herring stocks,going back at least since the 1920s.

There are three important obstacles that must be overcome in order to successfully integrate LTK into contemporary fisheries management; 1)Tlingit resource management practices for herring and other fisheries have been largely unrecognized to date; 2) many of the principles of sociopolitical organization and spiritual life of Southeast Native groups, such as the Tlingit, which underlay the management system of herring, have been undermined by the state, their authority usurped or even thwarted by competing economic interests, world views, and state authority, and; 3)Natives and small-scale fishermen do not necessarily have the same objectives as to what ends and for whom herring should be managed. Unless these models can be reconciled, the prospects for successful integration of LTK and into contemporary fisheries management may be limited.

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