This Tiny Fish Holds Together Ecosystems and Cultures—It’s Also Under Threat

This Tiny Fish Holds Together Ecosystems and Cultures—It’s Also Under Threat

This Tiny Fish Holds Together Ecosystems and Cultures—It’s Also Under Threat

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska is fighting to protect the Pacific herring, challenging the idea of what it means to manage a fishery sustainably.


On a drizzly March afternoon in Sitka, Alaska, K’asheechtlaa “Louise” Brady hurries down a wooden ramp to the dock at Fisherman’s Quay, her gray-streaked hair spilling from the hood of her windbreaker. There, two small skiffs sit low in the water, heavy with 10-foot-long hemlock branches jeweled with yellow-white fish eggs.

“Oh, they’re so beautiful!” Brady says, hugging a man and a woman in rubber boots as they step from the skiffs onto the dock. On the quay above, a small group of volunteers waits, ready to process the eggs and load them into boxes headed for elders, family members, and others across the state.

This is part of the Tlingit herring-egg harvest. Every spring for thousands of years, as migrating Pacific herring arrive along Alaska’s southeastern coast, Native harvesters have cast young hemlock trees and their branches into the sea to attract fish in search of a place to spawn. Days later, the harvesters return to collect thousands of pounds of eggs. It’s the highlight of the year, the first fresh food after a long dark winter.

Many of the eggs will travel far beyond Sitka. For more than 11,000 years, the Tlingit people, the state’s second-largest tribe, have lived and fished in coastal clans across Alaska’s southeastern panhandle and in British Columbia, Canada. Likely as long, they’ve traded and exchanged herring eggs as gifts with inland clans and tribes in a vast network that Thomas Thornton, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska Southeast, calls a “singular cultural phenomenon.” A 2019 book by Thornton found that 87 percent of harvested eggs end up changing hands as many as four times among the approximately 10,000 Natives throughout the state, and even as far away as Florida and Hawaii. In Sitka, the herring-egg harvest is enshrined in an early Tlingit story: A woman sang to the herring in Sitka Sound, then fell asleep on a rock. While she slept, the herring laid eggs in her hair.

“This isn’t just food. It’s our culture; it’s our spirit,” says Brady, 66, as she pulls a cluster of springy eggs from the hemlock needles and pops it into her mouth. “This is the taste of what it means to be Tlingit.”

The Tlingit say that this culture is under threat. Today, their subsistence harvest accounts for less than 1 percent of the herring roe taken in Sitka. Japanese buyers have dominated the fishery here since their own herring population was decimated by overfishing in the 1960s. For nearly 50 years now, Alaska’s commercial fishers have made millions feeding the demand for Japan’s traditional kazunoko delicacy. While the harvest brings in as much as $12 million, most of that money leaves Sitka, as the fishers typically come from somewhere else, bring their own crews, and stay for less than two weeks. The city then must split the spike in fish tax revenue generated by the harvest with the state.

This hyper-specific export market is also extremely wasteful. Seiners—boats named for their expansive seine nets—scoop up entire schools of herring, male and female alike, but sell only the eggs of mature females, usually over six years old. The rest is bycatch.

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska—Sitka’s federally recognized tribal government—says that its food security, along with the herring, has paid a price. In Tlingit tradition, herring eggs were a staple nutritional source. Today, they are a rarer delicacy eaten in communal, celebratory settings. In the years since the commercial harvest began, the tribe’s harvest has diminished to the point that its citizens were forced to ration the eggs, feeding elders first. And tribal citizens aren’t the only ones who rely on the fish. Herring are a keystone species, a “forage fish” that sits at the bottom of the food chain; countless other fish, birds, and marine mammals depend on them. If the fishery collapses, the entire ecosystem is at risk.

The tribe has pushed back against this declining harvest, and in 2018 it sued to force the state of Alaska to take a more sustainable approach. But the tribe’s proposals are in conflict with the state’s management strategy, which treats “sustainability” more like an economic equation to maximize long-term yield. And while the tribe has won some victories, what it considers the slow-motion destruction of this fishery continues largely unchecked. In 2019 and ‘20, the fishery remained closed because the fish were too small to garner market interest. But this year, the state authorized the largest commercial herring harvest in Alaska’s history.

Brady takes the fight personally. Like all the women in her clan, she is a “Herring Lady” by lineage, descended from the woman who once sang to the fish. Since 2016, she has led a grassroots group of “Herring Protectors,” a dozen or so local activists and independent researchers working to raise awareness of the problem and to challenge the economic paradigms that determine the fate of this fish. To Brady, the plight of the Pacific herring in southeastern Alaska calls into question the values driving even the most conservative approaches to Western natural resource management.

“My ancestors fought to retain our way of life,” Brady says. “This is my original instruction.”

Sitkans call it “herring weather.” As March rushes toward April, there’s a wildness in the air. Winds shift suddenly, and sunshine turns to hail and snow and back again before you can change your shoes. The island is tense with waiting; gulls gather on trees above the sea lions tossing irritably on rocks, and massive seiners appear on the horizon.

Then, without warning, vast schools of small, silver-bellied herring spill through the neck of the sound, trailing miles of milky-white spawn behind them. So commences a wildlife bonanza. Bald eagles and gulls swoop down on the churning water. Sea lions chase the salmon, which chase the herring. Gray whales and humpbacks glide into the sound by the improbable hundreds, gold-misted spouts popping like fireworks on the horizon.

Once, similar herring events cascaded down the West Coast, from the Bering Strait to Baja California.

In the late 1800s, California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia established aggressive bait and “reduction” fisheries, in which small fish were caught solely to be “reduced” into oil, feed, or fertilizer. Today, in most of the West, those milky coastlines are barely a memory.

Reduction fisheries didn’t open in Alaska until the turn of the 20th century, and they faced consistent opposition from sport fishers and other commercial fishers. In 1909, the US Bureau of Fisheries issued a report to Congress calling for a ban on them, citing the threat to king salmon, whose primary food source is herring, but the fish-oil lobby swiftly quashed the idea. Then the collapse of the massive Japanese herring fisheries created an opportunity for both commercial fishers and the state to open a sac roe fishery that, unlike reduction fisheries, the state could attempt to manage for the long-term health of the species—and a long-term revenue stream.

According to the state, Alaska’s herring management has been a success story. The Department of Fish and Game began performing consistent surveys of Sitka herring populations in 1974, and the resulting data show steady growth in herring stocks since then. State statisticians use this historical data to set a “harvest threshold,” the number of tons of herring that can be sustainably fished each year. But the state’s approach, Thornton says, is flawed; it reflects a “shifting baseline syndrome” common to modern commercial fisheries. The term describes how regulators use the already diminished stocks to establish baselines of historical abundance. In Sitka, the last reduction fishery closed in 1966, which means that by the time the state started keeping track, the herring population was already suffering. While the state also uses data collected by the federal government beginning in the 1920s as a way to extend its historical timeline, critics point out that the data were collected with a hodgepodge of methods across ever-shifting areas and seasons.

Tribal memory goes back a lot further than 1974 or even the 1920s. Elders tell stories, passed down from before the arrival of European colonizers, of herring so thick in the water that the sea boiled. Of a harvest that spanned weeks, rather than the few days they count on now. Whereas 12 spawning areas in southeastern Alaska once supported commercial and tribal interests alike, today Sitka is the region’s only active sac roe fishery. Subsistence harvesters from around the region arrive each year to cast their branches, and despite the state’s numbers, they describe the most challenging harvests in memory.

“They said we have no science,” says Harvey Kitka, a Tlingit elder. “We had the first science—observation.”

Jamie Ross stands on the deck of his seiner, Anduril, next to a pile of dead herring, his shaggy white hair and mustache blowing in the wind. He picks up a fish and lays it on his palm: six inches long, silver-blue, tapering to a dark, forked tail. Placing two fingers below the fish’s belly, he pushes gently, and two roe-heavy orange sacs slide into his hand.

“Look how easy that slips out,” he says, rotating his hand so the sacs glisten. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

Ross, who’s from Homer, Alaska, has fished Sitka herring for 30 years. He’s one of the 47 permit holders, and one of the few who remember when herring fisheries lined the Alaska coast. For Ross and his family, the Sitka harvest kicks off a nomadic year of traveling between fisheries, working their way south to Santa Barbara, Calif., for the winter squid season. But Sitka’s fishery is his favorite—for the sport and for the uncertainty of it. You never know how many herring will arrive, and fewer fish means a higher risk of going home empty-handed. In the past, taking that risk could also yield extraordinary rewards.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Ross says, you could earn “obscene money” harvesting herring. A ton was typically valued at around $1,000, peaking at more than $2,000 in 1990. As recently as 2008, one seiner in Sitka Sound netted 1,500 tons in one day for a haul worth close to $1 million. But in the past 20 years, the Japanese demand for kazunoko has declined, likely because younger generations have lost interest in this expensive holiday delicacy. In 2014, Ross got only $179 a ton, though the price was up to $300 this year. But, Ross says, he still makes a good living. It helps that as the price has declined, the commercial harvest quota has been steadily increasing. And he notes that he may soon have new customers: The commercial industry is lobbying to open a fish meal processing plant in Sitka.

Ross is aware of the tribe’s concerns, but he finds it hard to question the state’s data. He calls Alaska’s fisheries “the finest managerial system on the planet.” He says that no commercial fish is monitored like herring, and no herring population is managed as carefully as it is in Sitka. In his experience, this approach has yielded amazing success: He’s never experienced more plentiful herring harvests.

“Fisheries are to Alaska like Hollywood is to Los Angeles,” he says. “It’s the industry.”

But his industry does face challenges. Ross has followed the shifts and collapses of other global fisheries—including of herring—and feels lucky that he can count on Alaska to respond with conservatism to the threat of overfishing. But he also spends 10 months of the year on the water, and climate change bears heavily on his sense of the future. Rising ocean temperatures increase the mortality rate of herring embryos and disrupt the bloom cycles of their plankton food. His outlook is bleak.

“We’re headed into a world without fisheries,” Ross says. “I hope I’m gone by then, because that’s not a world that I want to live in.”

For two decades after the sac roe fishery opened, the Tlingit watched the state expand the commercial harvest, even as their own harvest dwindled. In the mid-1990s, the tribe began to fight back, first by disputing the state’s data on herring populations and then by trying to change how the fish are regulated.

In Alaska, the public’s right to fish and harvest wildlife resources is enshrined in the state constitution. For this reason, the fisheries’ regulatory process is remarkably open. Each rule is proposed by the public and approved by the Board of Fisheries—seven citizens, appointed by the governor to three-year terms. Members travel the state for meetings on the hundreds of fisheries the board oversees. They rely on data from the Department of Fish and Game and on public testimony, but they have final say on every decision. In some respects, it’s a remarkably democratic process: Anyone can submit a proposal to change or create a regulation. But in a state where seafood exports generate $3 billion in revenue each year, the influence of commercial fishing is hard to overstate.

“The Board of Fish is known as the best process for fisheries in the country,” Brady says. “It is not the best process for Indigenous people.”

Despite these reservations, Brady and the Tribal Council decided to get involved. They submitted a proposal to reduce the “guideline harvest level”—the proportion of the herring population allowed to be fished—from 20 percent to 10 percent. They asked for a moratorium on future commercial harvests. And they brought dozens of elders to the 1997 Board of Fish meeting, which took place in Sitka, to speak. For Brady, the memories of that meeting are still painful. Many of the elders barely had time to state their full name and clan lineage before board members cut them off at the three-minute limit for comments. More significantly, the tribe struggled to respond to questions about how much money the commercial fishers would lose if its proposals were adopted.

“They don’t understand that for us, herring eggs have nothing to do with money,” Brady says. “They have everything to do with spiritualism, culture, and history.”

Over the next 20 years, the board made a number of concessions, including designating an area of the sound exclusively for subsistence fishers. But for the tribe, these were half-measures that did nothing to address its fundamental concerns. In 2016, Brady began taking matters into her own hands: She organized a group of local activists and researchers, Native and non-Native alike, who fundraised, hosted events, and built awareness over social media. While some tribal leaders bristle at enlisting outsiders and dislike the group’s aggressive tactics, to many in the tribe, Brady has brought new energy to an often frustrating legal and regulatory process.

In 2018, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska sued the state for mismanaging the fishery and failing to provide “reasonable time and opportunity” for a subsistence harvest. In December 2021, the Supreme Court of Alaska ruled in the tribe’s favor and required the Department of Fish and Game to prove that it was providing an opportunity for subsistence fishing.

It was a victory, but tribal officials saw it as a hollow one, since it placed no real limits on the scope of the fishery. In 2018, with marketable fish scarce, the fishery harvested only 2,900 tons. In 2022, after the two-year hiatus resulted in an unprecedented population boom, the state authorized a record-setting harvest: Commercial boats would be allowed to bring in a staggering 45,000 tons.

At precisely 11 am on April 5, Aaron Dupuis stands at the helm of a pitching boat, one hand braced against the ceiling, the other grasping a radio handset. He looks out a rain-streaked window at a dozen white seiners. “Attention, seiners and processors of Sitka Sound,” he announces. “The commercial fishery is now open.”

The ensuing “derby-style” harvest resembles a sporting event on a massive scale. Dupuis, the Department of Fish and Game’s area management biologist, serves as referee. On his signal, 200-ton seiners dash and sometimes collide, spraying fiberglass in a fight for the prized fish. In years when herring numbers are low, the spectacle can be over in 15 minutes.

“It’s terrifying,” Dupuis says. “I don’t sleep well these weeks.”

This year is comparatively calm. Because of the record size of the allowed harvest, the six processing companies agreed to work together, both to control the quality of the catch and to control the market. They came to that agreement weeks ago, based on population data collected by Dupuis and analyzed by state statisticians.

Herring are extraordinarily hard to track. They travel thousands of miles in massive schools, and nobody is really sure where they come from or where they’ll decide to go next. Unlike salmon, they spawn several years in a row, and the older fish tend to yield more marketable eggs. As the herring arrive each year, Dupuis scuba-dives from boats into four-foot waves, clipboard in hand, to count the eggs laid in sample sites. Monitoring the eggs that streak the shoreline, he flies over the sound, his plane tracking the miles they cover. State statisticians use this data, combined with data from past years, to forecast age and population trends.

But they don’t always get it right. Once the fishery opens, Dupuis’s team samples fish randomly from around the sound. If their measurements show that the state has missed its prediction on the proportion of mature, egg-bearing mothers, the whole season can be thrown off. In 2019, an unexpected surge of unmarketable young fish kept the fishery closed. The hiatus gave the fish time to mature, and this year, they are reaping the benefits.

Dupuis doesn’t just manage fish; he also has to manage competing interests. He started two years ago and knows he inherited deep distrust from the tribe. But he calls the tribe’s biologist every morning of the harvest to let him know when and where he plans to open. This year, for the first time, he adjusted the area designated for commercial fishers after he got a call from a Native harvester who told him the seiners were getting too close to her harvest spots.

Under the long shadow of a towering blue-and-white seiner, Tkl’ Un Yeik “Paulette” Moreno sits in an open skiff laden with dark-needled hemlock boughs. She watches a black net blossom from beneath the boat, silver schools of herring dashing from its grasp. Her partner, Andrew Roberts, steers the skiff away to a cove, and stops.

Moreno says a prayer, then pushes a rock wrapped in netting overboard and guides the length of a 10-foot hemlock sapling close behind it. As the tree plunges into the water, a yellow rope unspools behind it until a milk jug bounces at the surface—a makeshift buoy to hold and mark her set. Moreno and Roberts followed the herring to this spot. If they chose well, the eggs in this spot could feed hundreds.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” Moreno says.

Moreno, 58, is one of the 25 to 50 local harvesters left in Sitka. As recently as a decade ago, she says, there were close to 60. Moreno started harvesting 13 years ago, because “nobody else was left” to do it for her family. These days, she and Roberts are what some call “super harvesters”—spending extra hours and fuel chasing herring around the sound in all weather, searching for ever-rarer spawning areas in an ever-narrower window of time.

Every year, Moreno and Roberts set aside $3,000 to $5,000 for boat fuel and repairs, equipment, gear, and the processing and shipping of eggs. They do not sell the eggs, and they don’t expect to get this money back. As herring season approaches, they scout for trees whose branches would make a good spawning habitat. Once she spots one, she always approaches it for permission. “Were you born to feed the people?” she asks. Only if she feels a “yes” will she thank it for its life and cut it down.

When they return to the milk-jug buoy, they find the ghostly sapling floating just beneath the surface, sparkling from root to tip with eggs. After two years without a harvest, the schools are bigger and more numerous, the eggs thicker on the branches. It’s nothing like in past decades, but it’s the best in a while.

Afew hundred miles south of Sitka, off the coast of British Columbia, herring management is changing radically. In December 2021, Canada cut its maximum allowed herring fishery harvest in half, from 20 percent of the total fish in the water to 10 percent—the very change the Sitka Tribe asked Alaska to adopt a quarter-century ago. Canada’s decision reflects a growing global trend away from “single species” fisheries management toward new ecosystem-based approaches.

Since the 1970s, the world’s fisheries managers have defined sustainability according only to the health of the species they’re regulating, with no regard for the effects of the fishery on other species and habitats. But in the past decade, as fisheries have collapsed around the world, marine and fisheries scientists have pushed for a method that assesses fish in the context of their environment.

For the herring, that context reveals their broader value. According to a 2021 report by the Institute for Ocean Conservation, “Little Fish, Big Impact,” forage fish like herring should not be harvested like other fish because of the sheer number of other species that depend on them.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United States Geological Survey list Pacific herring as a forage fish. Alaska does not. In 2013, the tribe proposed adding herring to the state list; in 2016, another Sitka community member did the same. Each time, the Board of Fish voted against it. In his 2019 book The Distribution of Herring Eggs From Sitka Sound, Alaska, Thornton, the University of Alaska Southeast anthropologist, describes this omission as “a scientific and legal absurdity.”

The omission is also a boon for the fishing industry. Alaska’s regulations protecting forage fish are strict. In 1999, the state prohibited opening new commercial fisheries for any listed species, citing their “critical role” in the marine ecosystem, and limited the amounts of those species that can be present as bycatch in other fisheries. And that, Aaron Dupuis notes, creates problems when it comes to herring. Most of the listed forage fish, like smelt and hooligan, have little market appeal. Listing herring, he says, “would take the fishery basically to zero.”

Sherri Dressel, the state biometrician who runs the population and harvest models for Sitka Sound, points out that the science of ecosystem management is still young. And although such an approach makes sense in theory, she says, collecting and crunching so much data is difficult, and any attempt to do so in Sitka today would likely introduce too much uncertainty to be reliable. For instance, she says, she has looked into incorporating data about whale diets to inform herring fisheries management. But the state doesn’t track the whales that come to Sitka, let alone how much herring they eat while there. And that’s just one other species.

Canada hasn’t waited for hard data on whales to start managing herring with them in mind. Northern Alaska, too, offers promising models: NOAA fisheries researchers in the Bering Sea have spearheaded groundbreaking ecosystem-based management tools. Their ongoing study of pollack, cod, and arrowhead flounder brings fisheries scientists together with marine ecosystem researchers and climate experts. Taking into account the possible population effects of various climatic shifts, they advise adjustments to harvest rates that can “help forestall climate-driven decline.” The next phase of their research will incorporate subsistence users.

Dressel agrees that climate change will require significant updates to current models. But she maintains that the best available Western science shows that the herring stocks in Sitka are flourishing at unprecedented levels. She also believes that the tribe’s experience of scarcity needs to be taken seriously. But she pointed to experts who suggest that shifts in herring spawning patterns may stem not from overfishing but from other changes: warming waters, shifting currents, contamination, and boat traffic—all of which might drive spawning fish to hard-to-reach areas farther from shore. Dressel supports efforts to incorporate traditional knowledge into Western science, but she feels strongly that they “just don’t work together yet.” All models, including her own, contain uncertainty, and she acknowledges the particular unreliability of state data before 1974. But her work requires precise dates and counts, which oral history can’t provide.

“If anyone says they know exactly how many fish are in Sitka Sound, they’re lying,” Dressel says. “But my job is to practice Western science.”

Each year, Dressel’s science helps determine the size of the allowed harvest. On April 10, 2022, when Dupuis closed the fishery for the season, seiners had shattered the record for the largest commercial harvest in Sitka’s history, at around 25,000 tons.

On the stage in a massive auditorium, K’asheechtlaa Brady stands, microphone in hand, wrapped in a blue robe etched with silver herring. Before her, hundreds of people fill the seats and stand along the walls. They have come from all over the state to celebrate the herring with a Koo.éex’, or potlatch, a 12-hour Tlingit ceremony of food, gifts, song, and dance. Banned in the early 1900s, these ceremonies were held in secret for decades and have survived mainly for weddings and funerals. Starting in 2018, Brady revived the tradition to celebrate the herring season.

“This is our vision as a people,” Brady says. “That we continue to come together from all over the Pacific for the herring, for the oceans, and for this world.”

The energy in the auditorium is high; everyone has heard that Sitka had an unusually good harvest. Children eat herring eggs by the fistful, and the audience cheers a blue-robed Herring Woman as she chases a dancer in a red “shame robe,” representing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, offstage.

“One day, we hope we won’t have to come to Sitka for our herring eggs anymore,” says Joel Dáxhajóon Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kak, a Southeast tribe that last had a subsistence harvest in the 1960s. “Thank you, Louise Brady, for fighting for our way of life.”

Around 10 pm, a slow drumbeat begins, and the crowd quiets and turns. Tkl’ Un Yeik Moreno emerges through the hall’s back door carrying a cedar basket full of eggs. A line of Herring Protectors follows, some pushing carts full of eggs, vacuum-sealed and loaded into boxes. They stack them in front of the stage. Then the singing begins.

The guests form a line, dancing to the front of the room. After receiving their eggs, they hold them overhead and face the hosts once again, singing their way back to their seats. After everyone seems to have taken what they need, there’s plenty left over. So they continue cycling back, elders and children, filling totes and grocery bags and boxes. At the back of the room, Brady embraces Moreno, who has tears running down her cheeks.

But the tribe knows that this abundance, following two years without a fishery, isn’t likely to last long. Just weeks before the harvest, the 2022 Board of Fish meeting resulted in a stalemate between the tribe and commercial fishers. Both sides withdrew their opposing proposals, and no herring rules changed. The tribe has already started planning for the next board meeting, in 2024-25, redoubling its fight for more conservative quotas.

Brady, though, isn’t waiting three years to act. The Herring Protectors recently released a short film about the herring harvest, and Brady is hosting screenings across the country. She also plans to screen this documentary in Japan, to show people there the tradition that their own tradition threatens. And she will visit Indigenous leaders from Washington to San Francisco, herring eggs in tow, to ask for their support.

With enough pressure, she hopes, the Board of Fish will begin to listen.

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