The Fish that Fed Your Fish

By Emma Bruhl

The Fish that Fed Your Fish
Photo by Payton Russell

The arrival of herring spawn marks the beginning of spring in Sitka.

The Fish that Fed Your Fish | Sitka Salmon Shares

Every spring in Sitka the water turns a pearly aquamarine-blue and becomes foamy with milt (fish sperm). Streamers of herring spawn envelope inlets around the island of Sheet’-ká X'áat'l (Sitka) like topographical lines circling the outer coast of the western edge of the world. To locals, this indicates that it's time to go out in the boat and tie a float to hemlock tree boughs using rope. After a day or so left submerged in the ocean, these boughs become coated in globs of tiny white fish eggs — herring roe. This technique was developed by the Lingít 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 fillet of wild Alaska fish that you eat this year 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.

Emma and her older brother Gustav.

My family harvests herring roe on hemlock boughs and even loads up the back of my Mom’s truck with the 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.

Emma's mom collecting herring roe in five gallon buckets for their vegetable garden.

For many Sitkans wild resources such as herring aren't merely a cherished pastime. For the Lingít people yaaw (herring) are profoundly tied to their culture and traditions.

Emma's step-mom, Lisa, dips blanched herring roe into seal oil.

And for our fishermen, the continued health of wild fish stocks is essential for their livelihoods. Additionally, living on an island where there there are no roads to the nearest town means that all grocery store items are barged or flown in. This makes even basic household food items very expensive. Here in Alaska, we find that everyday items can cost double or triple what they would down south. Consequently, subsistence is not only culturally valuable, it’s a necessity.

The financial impact of steeply priced store-bought food is softened by harvesting one’s own food. And according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, most households do so in abundance. In Sitka, 91% of households participate in some form of subsistence gathering and 98% of households gather, share, or consume subsistence foods including most, if not all, of our fishermen. A significant portion of that food is the same as the wild seafood you will find in your monthly box this year: salmon, halibut, rockfish, lingcod, and black cod — all of which feed on herring.

Emma's father and step-mom hold up a pot of hemlock branch covered in herring roe.

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 at Sitka Salmon Shares recognizes the need of Alaskan communities for more consistent access to capital by creating a stable market for their fish. Your membership helps to create the consistency and dependability that fishing communities need.

Quiet downtown Sitka, Alaska in early spring.

Alaskan's multifaceted dependence on a balanced marine ecosystem is part of why Sitka Salmon Shares take their sourcing so seriously. It’s why they appointed Chief Fisheries Officer Kelly Harrell to oversee the ethics of their sourcing decisions, and why they are working every day toward a more responsible seafood system.

When you sit down to eat the fish from your subscription box, I invite you to think of yourself as a participant in Alaska's dynamic marine ecosystem. You are now connected to this place and to the herring themselves — the fish that fed your fish.

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