New study shows social, cultural, ecological benefits of herring subsistence economy are at risk

Pictured: "Distribution of Subsistence Herring Eggs from Sitka Sound, Alaska" book cover snapshot.(Snapshot: Lisa J. Ellwood, Indian Country Today from material provided by Sealaska Heritage Institute)

Study calls on state to reform management of Sitka Sound roe fishery

News Release

Sealaska Heritage Institute

A new study is recommending major changes to the way the State of Alaska manages the sac roe herring fishery in Sitka Sound and is predicting dire outcomes for the ancient subsistence herring roe fishery located there, which supports people across the state and Pacific Northwest, if things do not change.

The study, The Distribution of Subsistence Herring Eggs from Sitka Sound, Alaska, touts the enormous, wide-ranging social and ecological benefits of Pacific herring from Sitka Sound and the unique Alaskan subsistence economy and ecosystem services which depend on their production and distribution.

The study, which was sponsored by Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) and led by Investigator Thomas Thornton, Ph.D., found that spawning populations of herring outside of Sitka Sound have been depleted by commercial reduction and sac roe fishing and that the role of Sitka herring as a keystone subsistence resource and foundation forage fish for salmon, sea mammals and other fish and wildlife in the marine food web should be a matter of public policy concern, review and reform.

Pictured: "Distribution of Subsistence Herring Eggs from Sitka Sound, Alaska" book cover.
Pictured: "Distribution of Subsistence Herring Eggs from Sitka Sound, Alaska" book cover.(Photo: Sealaska Heritage Institute)

The study included interviews with more than 50 participants from Sitka, Angoon, Hoonah, Kake, Juneau, Metlakatla and other communities involved in the subsistence harvest and distribution of herring roe. The study was also based on a thorough review of the scientific literature and previous research efforts of the investigator.

It is one of the most extensive studies of its kind on the cultural, historical and societal importance of herring in Sitka Sound, the mecca of herring spawning and egg gathering for thousands of years and the last stronghold in the region of this keystone species.

The importance of the study and its findings cannot be overstated, said SHI President Dr. Rosita Worl, an anthropologist who has studied subsistence cultures and economies throughout Alaska and the circumpolar Arctic.

“We in the Native community have said for many years that our herring runs are in trouble, but our pleas have fallen on deaf ears, even as we’ve witnessed once-strong herring runs disappear,” said Worl, noting that herring populations once abounded across Southeast Alaska.

“If the current management approach continues, we will see the extinction of another cultural tradition, to the detriment of all Alaskans, herring and the species that rely on herring,” said Worl, who authored the foreword for the publication.

The study argues that improved recognition and support for the ecological and cultural benefits of Native herring egg gathering and cultivation techniques, and an alternative approach to the destructive sac-roe extraction fishery, is the best way to optimize benefits to Alaskans and the health of the state’s fisheries.

Among other things, the study recommends that the state, which does not recognize herring as a forage fish, add the species to Alaska’s Forage Fish Management Plan, which might subject the fish to more conservative conservation management.

“Pretending, by omission, that they are not a forage fish is a scientific and legal absurdity. Herring are classified as forage fish by most government agencies, including the United States Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,” Thornton wrote, citing a paper compiled by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

The study also recommends that the state commission a management evaluation to improve the stewardship of Pacific herring. The management evaluation should recognize the historical and cultural ecology that has served to develop and sustain the model of “cultivated abundance,” as opposed to the “maximum sustained yield” model the state uses today. The evaluation should factor in Indigenous herring management, as well as the unparalleled distributional system and ecocultural benefits, Thornton wrote.

The study also recommends that the state change the way herring roe is allocated for subsistence harvests. The current method, known as “amount necessary for subsistence,” grossly underestimates the amount needed for subsistence use.

In addition, the study recommends instituting a robust collaborative research and management regime under a memorandum of agreement that would include the Alaska Board of Fisheries, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Sitka Tribe of Alaska and the Federal Subsistence Regional Advisory Council for Southeast Alaska. Under the new structure, the partners would work together on a strategic review and revised guidelines for management of herring ecosystems.

The author will give a lecture on the topic at noon on Tuesday, Nov. 26, at Sealaska Heritage, 105 S. Seward St. in Juneau. Sealaska Heritage Institute is taking preorders for the book, which will be available through the Sealaska Heritage Store. To preorder, contact thestore@sealaska.com. 

The book, which is part of SHI’s Box of Knowledge series, is based on extensive study of the subsistence and commercial herring roe and reduction fisheries. The story begins with the origins of roe harvests.

Origins of herring roe fishing

The Tlingit and Haida both have ancient oral histories on the origins of herring egg cultivation. At the Tlingit community of Sitka, herring eggs were said to have been first collected on the hair of a young woman as she lay sleeping upon Herring Rock (Yaaw Teiyí). Herring Rock was taken as a crest by the Kiks.ádi clan and names were given to commemorate the woman and the event (Yaaw Sháa, “Herring Woman,” or “Herring Maiden,” sometimes collectively applied as Yaaw Sháawu, “Herring Women,” or Kaxátjaa Sháa, “Flipping Girls”), names which continue to be passed on today. Herring are so important to the Tlingit that the species is depicted on sacred objects or at.óow, such as the Herring Rock Robe owned by the Kiks.ádi clan.

A Haida story tells of the trickster Raven discovering the best technology for acquiring herring eggs as part of his insatiable quest for food. He used a kelp colloquially known as “Raven’s moustache” as his substrate to capture the eggs. From Seagull he learned how to capture live herring when they returned to spawn by tricking the gull into demonstrating to him how to capture herring and then stealing his catch.

Archaeological evidence documents a 10,000-year tradition of herring harvest in the northern Northwest Coast region. In northwestern North America, the archaeological record of faunal remains shows that herring were fished for more than 10,000 years and were routinely taken by at least 4,000 BP, the study said.

Subsistence fishers collect herring eggs by laying small hemlock trees or kelp in spring in the spawning grounds, and in a good season, the branches are thick with eggs when the boughs are collected from the water.

The herring are highly prized for their eggs, meat, oil and mash, and also because they are the first fish of spring. The return of the herring breaks the winter scarcity of fresh food and heralds the spring renewal of life.

“Herring are our Easter eggs,” said one Tlingit elder interviewed for the study.

Native people also consider herring to be a forage fish or a keystone species, meaning, they are the food source for king salmon, marine mammals and birds and play a foundational role in replenishing the Sitka Sound marine ecosystem, Thornton wrote.

“Herring provide the food source for almost every other animal in the water that we gather,” said interviewee Tammy Young. “They are on the ground floor.”

“Herring are the key to the ocean. They are our buffalo,” said Mike Miller of Sitka in the study.

Herring are also considered to be a cultural keystone, or a thing of such significance that it appears in the language, cultural practices, traditions, diet, medicines, material items and histories of a community. Cultural keystones influence social systems and culture and are a key feature of a community's identity.

Herring play an essential role in the wellbeing of Native society, not only in Sitka, but in communities across the state and Pacific Northwest. That sense of wellbeing stems from a distribution system for herring roe that has been in existence for hundreds of years.

Distribution of herring roe

The distribution system is complex and can work in different ways, but generally herring roe subsistence gatherers share their harvest widely with family, elders, friends and others. The roe usually is shipped or given to people upon request with no expectation of anything in return. Often times, people on the receiving end will later send a gift, such as muktuk, moose meat or other prized things that are not available in Sitka.

Sometimes there will be a cash exchange to help support the gathering of the roe for costs such as boat fuel, wetlock boxes and shipping, but the roe itself is not sold. In a few isolated instances when someone has sold it, the community has taken a harsh view of the offender.

“People hold a general distaste and aversion for selling eggs for profit,” Thornton wrote.

On average, 87 percent of the Sitka herring egg harvest is shared by Alaska Native participants. Remarkably, the data show that Sitka harvesters shared 51 percent of their harvest with non-Sitka residents throughout Southeast Alaska and the state. Eggs were distributed to regional centers such as Juneau, Anchorage, Bethel, Kotzebue and Utqiagvik (previously Barrow) from which they were further shared with outlying communities.

The research also documented harvesters from other Southeast Alaska villages who distribute eggs in their home villages, as well as participation of organization-sponsored harvesters that engage in similar distribution practices. Primary, secondary and even tertiary levels of sharing and distribution are common along numerous and diverse social networks. These customary practices persist in spite of the massive decline in the availability of herring spawn on branches in the Sitka area, raising the question of how long this vital practice can continue.

The distribution system for herring has profound meaning for the people involved. To be in these distribution networks is to be connected, supported and secure, the study said.

Vivan Mork, a recent migrant to Juneau from Sitka, was quoted in the study this way:

“Our herring have huge spiritual, cultural and social significance, not only to the Tlingit, but to the many other Alaska Native tribes who we share our herring eggs with. Herring eggs are shared with people from as far away as Barrow to as close as our neighbors in Ketchikan. For the Tlingits who've moved away from home, it's our soul food, keeping us connected to one another and to place. If you receive herring eggs from someone, you know you're loved."

Sharing the eggs also conveys to the giver status and prestige associated with generosity and helps to build social capital, resilience and extended relational networks, the study found.

Ultimately, it is this “total social phenomenon” of the gift of herring eggs, the feelings of love, conviviality, renewal, bounty, connectedness and belonging that continues to motivate the significant levels of Native participation.

“In this respect, it is unlike any other subsistence resource in the Southeast Alaska Native portfolio. And, because of this, the social-ecological system is considered sacred and vigorously defended by Sitka Natives,” Thornton wrote.

The decline

Fishermen interviewed for the study who plied the waters of central and southern Southeast Alaska in the first half of the twentieth century recalled vividly when herring schools extended for miles and their feeding activities near the surface resonated like a mighty rain or wind, Thornton wrote. But such herring abundance has not been experienced since before Alaska statehood in 1959, the study said.

The industrial exploitation of herring began with the founding of the Killisnoo herring reduction plant in 1882 near Angoon. According to Dr. Walter Soboleff, who worked at the plant in the early 1920s and was in his 90s when Thornton interviewed him for a 2008 study, fishers supplying this plant targeted herring locally until supplies were diminished, at which point they moved down Chatham Strait and into areas of Frederick Sound.

In the late 1970s, a herring sac roe fishery was introduced to supply a growing Japanese market for kazunoko, herring roe that is marinated in dashi soy sauce seasoning. The fishery expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, and since that time, herring returns have been inconsistent and herring runs have declined or disappeared.

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska has criticized the state’s management practices, calling for a more ecosystem-based regime.

For herring, the state uses a management approach called “maximum sustained yield,” meaning it allows for a certain number of fish to escape harvest to allow for the species to spawn. Through this regime, the goal is to allow for maximum sustained harvest of herring by people, rather than an abundance of the species.

But Alaska Native tribes, including the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, have expressed grave concerns about the maximum-sustained-yield approach because spawning and rearing habitats throughout the Southeast region remain depleted, Thornton wrote.

Herring runs in the region that used to be strong, including one near Auke Bay in Juneau, have disappeared, and roe harvesters have turned to subsistence roe fisheries in Sitka Sound.

“We depend on Sitka, now,” said Juneau interviewee Doug Chilton. “Everyone does.”

But in recent years, the roe harvests in Sitka have dwindled and the quality and thickness of the eggs on boughs and kelp has declined. Hemlock boughs that used to be thick with herring roe are thinly spawned and a pittance of what they used to be.

In some years, the Sitka herring spawn has been so poor, Native people have declined to participate in the subsistence fishery. The state has used those lower participation rates as a way to prove a lack of demand by subsistence harvesters for herring roe and to make an argument that there is currently no subsistence crisis, the study said.

“The Alaska Board of Fisheries and the industry interest group tend to see reduced participation and failure to meet the amount necessary for subsistence as evidence that there is no subsistence crisis, or even that the amount needed for subsistence could be revised downward, freeing up more biomass for the commercial industry,” Thornton wrote.

The study argues that in order to deliver its maximum benefits to humans and other critical species in the food chain, such as salmon, herring needs to be managed for abundance, not for maximizing commercial yields of whole herring that are stripped of their roe for Asian markets.

That point especially rankled people interviewed for the study, who said the subsistence herring roe fishery in Alaska is being depleted for the benefit of another country, as the commercial harvest goes primarily to consumers in Japan.

“It’s not even for our own use,” said Tammy Young of Sitka Tribe of Alaska. “It doesn’t make sense that we would overuse a resource for another country that doesn’t really know that this resource could go away. Otherwise they wouldn’t continually be utilizing it the way they are.”

Wade Martin contrasted the feeling people normally get from a bountiful herring egg season to the depressed situation now.

“The feeling you [normally] get when herring season comes around, you’re just like a kid in Christmas and you can’t wait to be a part of it and watch the eagles, everything around and the whales and all the marine mammals … and now you go out there and … it’s desolate. It’s lifeless. The powers [that] be are lying to everyone about the health of the stock, they’re lying about the [amount of] spawn, you know, it’s just a big lie anymore and it’s disheartening,” Martin said.

Worl, in her foreword, called on the state to change its management approach or to establish a moratorium on the commercial herring fishery to save this ancient subsistence tradition from extinction.

“If they fail to act, we will see the demise of yet another indigenous cultural practice. Social cohesion will be undermined with decreasing numbers of harvesters gathering and sharing herring eggs,” Worl said. “Traditional knowledge about herring behavior, migration patterns, and differences between male and female herring will be lost to succeeding generations.”

On December 11, 2018, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska filed a lawsuit against the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Board of Fisheries in Superior Court, charging them with unlawful conduct and requesting an injunction against ADF&G that would require them to develop a new management plan for the fishery. The injunction was denied in February 2019. The case is expected to go to trial in December 2020.

In summary

There was a time when herring were so plentiful that Indigenous inhabitants could rake them easily from the ocean’s surface with spiked paddles. The reduction fishing era undermined this richness by fishing down the herring superabundance to scarcity. More careful management of fisheries in the last forty years has enabled herring to recover but only to a fraction of their pre-industrial fishing levels. Today, Southeast Alaskan herring are managed in a depressed state now considered under the state’s maximum-sustained-yield model as “normal,” Thornton wrote.

Given the rich multiplicity of cultural beliefs, values, practices and benefits that underlie the Sitka Sound herring egg cultivation and distribution system, it should be recognized as a cultural treasure, worthy of state, national and perhaps even international world heritage support, Thornton wrote.

Instead, contemporary fisheries management has continued to harm the health of this unique social-ecological system of cultivated abundance and to stress the herring egg distribution system that delivers so many benefits to communities throughout Alaska and the Northwest region, the study said.

About Dr. Thomas Thornton

Dr. Thomas Thornton, currently dean of arts and sciences and vice-provost for research and sponsored programs at the University of Alaska Southeast, has carried out human ecological studies in Alaska and elsewhere for more than 30 years. His book, Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’u: Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land, which was published by Sealaska Heritage Institute with the University of Washington Press, won a 2012 Alaska Historical Association award. In previous Alaska research he has collaborated with numerous Southeast Alaska tribes and organizations, including Sitka Tribe of Alaska and the Southeast Native Subsistence Commission. While carrying out this study, he served as an associate professor and senior research fellow at University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment, United Kingdom. 

About Box of Knowledge

Sealaska Heritage Institute launched its Box of Knowledge series to encourage scholarship on Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures, to disseminate papers and research more widely and to circulate work that has not been published. People interested in publishing through the series should contact Chuck Smythe, director of Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Culture and History Department at 907.463.4844.

About Sealaska Heritage Institute

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. Sealaska Heritage Institute also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

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