If it’s snowing in April, it probably means it’s time for the subsistence herring egg harvest in Sitka. This is one of the most important signs of spring in Sitka, especially for the Tlingít, Haida and Tsimshian people who lived in Southeast Alaska long before the first Europeans showed up.
On the KCAW-Raven Radio news Tuesday, KCAW reporter Ed Ronco reported on a trip he took with Sitka Tribe of Alaska Vice Chairman Michael Baines and his sister, Betty Baines, to place hemlock trees and branches into Sitka Sound, near Kasiana Island, to collect the herring spawn. The story link includes an audio postcard, where Michael Baines discusses the herring roe’s importance to the Native culture, and a few photos of the hemlock branches and trees being prepared. The herring eggs will collect on the branches, which will be pulled from the water a few days later, hopefully with a thick mass of roe. (Editor’s note: On Friday there was a follow-up story featuring the fishing vessel Julia Kae, skippered by Steve Demmert, which has been distributing herring eggs to local residents of Sitka and surrounding communities.)
The herring harvest is an amazing time in Sitka, because it seems like every species comes to town for the herring. There are more whales, eagles, sea gulls, sea lions, etc., around town, and even halibut and salmon are looking for meals of herring eggs. Pauline Duncan produced this Tlingít curriculum about herring geared toward younger students for the Alaska Native Knowledge Network. The blog Kiksadi News by Heen Kweix’ (Bob Gamble) tells how subsistence herring eggs are harvested and prepared (scroll down to the second item).
There also is a large commercial harvest of herring just before the subsistence herring roe harvest. The commercial harvest this year had a record guideline harvest of 18,293 tons, and finished just 550 tons short of that goal. The growing commercial harvest has put a lot of pressure on the relatively small subsistence harvest, in 2005 only 72,000 pounds (not tons) were taken out of a target range of 105,000 to 158,000 pounds. Sitka Tribe of Alaska regularly submits proposals to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (which manages both the commercial and subsistence fisheries) to increase the subsistence harvest, but the proposals have not been passed. The subsistence herring eggs are used not just in Sitka, but all over the state and they are a popular trading subsistence food (for example, a Tlingít in Sitka might swap herring eggs with an Iñupiat for caribou meat from the Kotzebue area, since caribou is an item not found in Southeast Alaska).