The arrival of herring spawn marks the beginning of spring in Sitka.
Every spring in Sitka the water turns a pearly aquamarine-blue and becomes foamy with milt (fish sperm). Streamers of herring spawn envelope inlets like topographical lines circling the outer coast of the western edge of the world. Locals tie a float to hemlock tree boughs with rope and leave the branches submerged in the ocean to be coated in globs of tiny white fish eggs — a technique that was developed by the Tlingit people, for whom the arrival of the herring spawn marks the arrival of spring and the beginning of the year. The taste of herring roe is salty and the hemlock needles are bright and aromatic. Delicious. A branch of herring eggs tastes like springtime to a Southeast Alaskan just as an ear of corn or a ripe tomato tastes like summer in the lower 48.
Although you won't find any herring in your shares, every single fish that you eat this CSF season will likely have fed on herring at some point in its life. Herring are a critical link in the marine food web in Southeast Alaska, which means that they are crucial to the ecological stability of our fisheries and to our way of life as Alaskans.
My family harvests roe on hemlock boughs and even loads up the back of my dad’s truck with roe that washes up on the beach to use as fertilizer. The eggs we take feed us and our garden, and the eggs that are left in the ocean go on to feed future generations of salmon, halibut, rockfish, and cod.
For many Sitkans wild resources such as herring spawn aren't merely a cherished pastime. For the Tlingit people these resources are profoundly tied to their culture and traditions. And for our fishermen, the continued health of wild fish stocks is essential for their work. Additionally, living in places where there are no roads means that all grocery store items are barged or flown in, making even basic household food items very expensive. Here in Alaska, we pay as much as $10 for a carton of eggs and find that everyday items can be twice what they are down south. Consequently, subsistence is not only culturally valuable, it’s an economic necessity.
The steep price of store-bought food is softened by harvesting one’s own food. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, most households do. In Sitka, 91% of households participate in some form of subsistence gathering and 98% of households gather, share, or consume subsistence foods. A significant portion of that food comes from fish that you will find in your share this year: salmon, halibut, rockfish, lingcod, and blackcod — all of which feed on herring.
Wild foods range from supplemental to crucial in the diet of Alaskans living in isolated communities. Often, access to consistent capital determines where one falls between the two ends of this spectrum. The community supported fishery model we use at Sitka Salmon Shares acknowledges the need of Alaskan communities for more consistent access to capital by paying our fishermen above dock price and creating a stable market for their fish. Your membership helps to create that consistency and dependability fishing communities need.
Our multifaceted dependence on a balanced marine ecosystem is why we at Sitka Salmon Shares take our sourcing so seriously and only catch what is in abundance. It’s why we appointed Chief Fisheries Officer Kelly Harrell to oversee the ethics of our fisheries, and why we are working every day toward a more responsible seafood system.
This delicate interplay between Sitka’s marine ecosystem and yourself might seem distant, but in fact it is not. When you sit down to eat the fish from your share, I invite you to think of the person who caught your fish and of yourself as a participant in this ecosystem. You are now connected to this place and to the herring themselves — the fish that fed your fish.
Know Your Author
Emma Bruhl is a writer, researcher, and lifelong Sitkan. Look for her on Sitka Salmon Shares’ social media pages taking photos and videos, talking to fishermen, hiking in the Tongass, and harvesting wild foods.