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  • Writer's pictureJohn J King II

Wild Times in Southeast Alaska: Sitka's Herring Spawn

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

We have long been fascinated with this part of the world and have visited Alaska many times to enjoy the wilderness, its biodiversity as well as its uniques indigenous cultures and history. But surprisingly we have never visited Sitka before. Each year in the spring a magical wildlife spectacle occurs here around the spawning herring and we are headed there shortly to witness it.

In April 1799 a Russian official, Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, sailed from St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs intent on establishing a fort on land which is now known as Old Sitka on the Pacific side of Southeast Alaska. (see map below). His intent was to secure rights by any means possible to expand Russian access to sea otter habitat in the region to exploit the lucrative fur trade for sea otter pelts. Sitka was to be established and become the capital of Russian America for fur trading purposes. Other countries would also send explorers with similar fur trading intentions from Europe and America. Native peoples would suffer greatly and the sea otter population would be nearly extirpated in the coming decades.

Baranov enters Sitka Sound on May 25, 1799 (above). Painting by Mark Myers

In late March - early April one of the most abundant and lucrative fisheries in Alaska commences, the herring sac roe fishery in Sitka Sound. Herring come out of the deep to lay eggs in kelp beds near the shoreline which are then fertilized and left to incubate the next generation. For eons native peoples and other commercial fishermen have been harvesting this bounty, as well as free swimming herring containing roe, for subsistence and more recently for commercial sale principally to Japan.

Herring seiners set out in a frenzy to harvest the sac roe with large purse seines. The herring sac roe fishery is often not more than a couple of hours. From first light, spotters are flying small aircraft looking for the large schools of herring. Seiners go out to various place in order to make test sets and check roe percentage. The managers of the fishery try to time it so that the percentage of mature roe is maximized. If they have the fishery too early, the fishermen do not get a good price for their catch. If they wait too long, the herring spawn and there is no roe left.

Paulette Marino, a member of the Tlingit tribe, pulls hemlock branches heavy with herring roe from Sitka Sound during a community harvest.

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.

Freshly spawned eggs attach to kelp fronds and then the milt from male herring fertilizes as seen here.

At the same time the spawning herring set in motion a cascade of feeding within the animal kingdom that has been repeating for more than 10000 years. This wildlife spectacle is what we have come to witness and hopefully document. Here are a few images from previous visits to a similar event in nearby Frederick Sound.

Humpback whales return from their winter breeding grounds, principally in the Hawaiian Islands. They return each year, some with new calves, in time to link up with the spawning herring.

Native peoples like the Tlingit nation have organized their clans in longhouses like this one for many generations. The resurgence of carving traditions in the last 25 years have rekindled many cultural elements to daily life in these native communities.

Cooperative feeding among humpback whales. Note the herring!

Tens of thousands of surf scoters and gulls feast on the herring bounty.

During this time many dozens of Bald eagles gather from as far as 100 miles away to try their luck at the herring feast.

Waterfowl such as Goldeneye ducks gather in numbers.

Other predators such as the Stellar sea lion are also present and hunting.

A pod of transient orcas feed principally on marine mammals and also stand by for opportunistic feeding among the gathered marine life.

LeConte's Glacier - This area of SE Alaska is known for its tidewater glaciers (unique in North America) which are slowly emptying into the sea by calving off huge chunks of glacial ice throughout the year.

Glacial icebergs get stranded on the shallow bars and eventually melt but make for a beautiful land & seascape in the interim..

Spring waterfalls are in full force at this time of year.

LeConte's Glacier from the air. A steady stream of calving ices flows from the face of the glacier at lower right.

A Bear totem from yesteryear.

Aurora borealis in Frederick Sound - a rare sight

A distinctive mature male killer whale makes his way alone in Chatham Strait.

Our home for the voyage - the purpose built 85 ' vessel for photography, marine research and exploration - Northern Song.

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