At a potluck in April, organized by Sitka Tribe of Alaska, the star of the show is herring eggs. Some herring fans dunk their eggs in seal oil, while others mix them with mayonnaise. For council member Wilber Brown, the secret is a splash of soy sauce.
“That first herring eggs of the year, when you bite into it, it just feels amazing!” Brown said. “It’s just soul food for us.”
Alaska Native people have been harvesting herring eggs for thousands of years, setting hemlock in the water and pulling the branches up days later, bundled with roe. But now, a decades-old debate is gaining traction over the stability of Sitka’s herring population.
This year, a lot of people’s hemlock branches came up bare. In the last fifteen years, harvesters met their annual subsistence needs only three times. So Brown isn’t alone in thinking the worst: that Sitka’s herring population is on the verge of collapse.
“I wasn’t able to send any up to my aunties, up to my family,” Brown said. “It’s scary to think it will be gone.”
Gone, or significantly diminished. That’s happened in Hobart Bay, Seymour Canal, or other places in Southeast that were once major spawn sites. In Sitka, the herring population has only grown – at least that’s what the state’s data shows. But locals can’t stop talking about how the spawn has changed: how in the 80s and 90s, every nook and cranny of Sitka Sound would turn milky white, the town wrapped in a band of fish fertility.
That’s how Jeff Feldpausch remembers it.
“It almost looked tropical,” Feldpausch said.
These days, some areas once considered a herring egg cookie jar see little to no spawn. And that worries Feldpausch, the tribe’s Resource Protection Director.
“It’s been basically one layer of eggs over the needles,” Feldausch said. “It’s nothing worth pulling in and bringing to the dock.”
Depending on the size of the herring population that returns to Sitka every spring, the State Board of Fish allows the fleet to catch up to 20 percent. Feldpausch thinks that maximum guideline harvest level is way too high. He’s submitted a proposal to the Board of Fish to cap the harvest level at 10 percent and another two that would seal off zones exclusively for subsistence. He doesn’t want the state to close the commercial fishery, just manage it more conservatively.
That job is carried out by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G), and as far as they’re concerned the herring are more abundant than ever.
On Easter morning, fisheries biologist Eric Coonradt with the department is hunting for herring eggs in the front seat of a small plane. He’s clutching a pencil and scanning the water.
He marked on a map all the places where spawn is visible. This aerial spawn data will be used to forecast the size of the population — which has grown in size. 20 years ago, the biomass was around 50,000 tons. This year, it was over 70,000. For Coonradt, that general upward trend is a sign that the ADF&G management plan is sound.
“This is probably one of the most looked at herring populations,” Coonradt said. “At least in Alaska.”
Sherri Dressel is ADF&G’s statewide fisheries scientist. She agrees with Coonradt.
“The whole mission of the department is sustainable management and I really do think that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do,” Dressel said.
But if the biomass has grown, why are subsistence harvesters not able to meet their needs? Dressel said that’s an unanswered question for biologists.
“I’m not aware that anyone has a great handle on why that is yet,” Dressel said.
Since there’s no scientific data proving a connection between changes in herring spawn and the commercial fishery, herring management can only change at the will of the Board of Fish. They meet in Sitka in January.
At the potluck, Jean Arnold piled her plate high with roe on kelp. She hopes the biologists listen to those who struggled to harvest this year after the fishing fleet left.
“I don’t want to see my great-grandson say, ‘Herring, what is that?,’” Arnold said. “That would not be good.”