“Down on the dock I say, “Gunalchéesh,” as my friend hands me a five-gallon bucket filled with herring eggs on hemlock branches. I take the bucket home and start a small pot of water boiling. I blanch a small batch of eggs and then eat them with soy sauce. It tastes like home. I am home when I eat herring eggs. Later, I take the herring eggs around to friends and elders. Sharing is an important Tlingit value and sharing herring eggs is a ritual connecting me to my people and place. This ritual is in danger of being lost.
Sadly, we are running out of time to save the herring. The herring fishery in Southeast Alaska is one of our “canaries in the cave,” meaning the herring decline is an early indicator of problems throughout our food web. One after another, 11 herring management areas in Southeast Alaska have been over-fished to near extinction. Extinction is a serious word. Historical herring fisheries once thrived at Kah Shakes/Cat Island, West Behm Canal, Ernest Sound, Hobart Bay, Seymour Canal, Chatham Strait, Hoonah Sound, Tenakee Inlet, Auke Bay, Lynn Canal, Icy Strait and Yakutat Bay. The Sitka Sac Roe Fishery is the last population of herring in Alaska to provide a significant commercial harvest and subsistence herring egg harvest. Despite these losses, Alaska Department of Fish and Game has ignored the traditional ecological science and testimonials of the Tlingit who’ve harvested in a sustainable way here for more than 10,000 years. Mismanagement has resulted in the decline of our herring population. This frightens me. Our elders tell us that life in Southeast is not possible without the herring. Why is this so hard for the state of Alaska to understand?”
Top: Herring eggs hang from a hemlock branch in Sitka. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Prescott), Bottom: In this photo from the William L. Paul Sr. Archives, herring eggs dry on the beach in Sitka circa 1900 (Courtesy Photo | Sealaska Heritage Institute).