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

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.

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