Spring Trips / Herring Spawn & Wildlife Extravaganza
Hail to the Herring!
Eagles swoop in to grab herring from the surface.
The widely distributed Pacific herring is an essential component of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem. As a “keystone species” in the food chain, the herring links nutrient-rich primary producers (zooplankton) to larger predators such as fish, birds, and marine mammals.
Between March and June, Pacific herring gather in the tens of millions along Southeast Alaska coastlines to spawn. In itself, it’s a sight to behold: silver bodies churn against the shore, and their eggs and milt lend the water a milky green hue. There is more, though. Because of it’s great ecological significance, the annual herring spawn is occasion for aggregations of hungry wildlife. Eagles gather by the thousands in trees along the shoreline, their urgent, piercing cries a constant refrain. For photographers, there are few more thrilling subjects than a bald eagle emerging from a dive with talons full of herring! Seals and Steller sea lions can also be seen diving through the massive schools of herring that ribbon the shallow waters along the shoreline. Humpback whales are drawn to the spawn as well, and these demonstrate a variety of feeding methods to concentrate and capture the silvery herring. Indeed, it is not uncommon to observe fascinating cooperative ‘bubble-net’ feeding behavior up close. For the lucky, there is even opportunity to see killer whales, cooperating in their own way to whip the herring schools into frenzied tight balls. As Jim Nahmens wrote in For the Love of Herring: “It just so happens that the herring attract all the animals we love to see. Find the herring and watch the show!”
Netted herring being transfered to a holding pen for roe harvesting.
The annual herring spawn doesn’t just attract animals. People, too, eagerly await the spawn. Pacific herring is an important food staple for coastal communities in Southeast and elsewhere, and herring roe (eggs) have long been collected as a subsistence resource. Tlingit natives of Southeast Alaska harvest the roe by placing hemlock branches in the water; herring eggs are sticky, and a thick layer of eggs will collect on the submerged bows. The roe, often dipped in seal oil, is highly prized as a densely caloric and nutritious protein source.
Pacific Herring is also a commercially fished resource. Historically, the herring were caught and rendered for their rich oil, or reduced to make fish meal. More recently, uses for commercially caught herring have included a limited food market, bait for other fisheries, and food for captive animals. The largest current commercial herring fishery is for roe; the eggs are largely exported to Japan, where they are an expensive and cherished delicacy (called kazunoko).
Although herring will spawn in a number of locations and at various points through the Spring, the spawn that occurs in March along the shores of Sitka is one of the largest on the west coast of North America. Each year, Alaska Sea Adventures features a special Sitka Sound Herring trip to witness the subsistence and commercial fishery efforts in the area. Later trips, to Hoonah Sound and Seymour Canal, also highlight this seasonal abundance of herring. You don’t want to miss these popular seasonal events!
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