A Herring Story in the San Juans

by Andrea Weiser

When my friend Dana Lepofsky invited me to join the BC-based “Herring School” – a collective of people from academic and First Nations community who are passionate about herring – I jumped at the chance.  My contribution to “the school” was to work with knowledge holders in Washington State to document the cultural importance of herring to Washington Tribes, and record recent ecological changes to herring observed by Native fishers.

The wealth of knowledge tribal and First Nations community members retain in their collective or individual memory is such a valuable piece of the puzzle for teasing out ecological and cultural changes as they relate to Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii).

One of the great outcomes of my research in Washington has been to collect stories from Fred Leatherwood, a 90-yr old Samish elder from Orcas Island with a deep sense of place and keen awareness of the ecological web. He remembers first-hand the abundance of herring in waters surrounding the San Juan Islands from the early 1930s to about 1948, when he says herring diminished Orcas Island waters and then finally disappeared by 1951. Fred attributes the rapid decline in herring to the destruction of eelgrass beds, after commercial bottom fisherman were allowed to drag those areas.  Eeelgrass is widely known to be a critical part of the life cycle of herring and other small fish because it provides a place for eggs to attach and gives young fish the much-needed protection from predators as they forage and grow.

Salted herring or smoked herring was a staple winter food in Fred’s family and he commonly used herring as bait to catch salmon. When salmon were congregating in the fall and winter, Fred would catch 5-6 salmon at the end of his workday on Orcas. Then, on his drive back to the house in Doe Bay, he would share the salmon catch to his neighbors.

“Oh, yeah, we all ate,” he says, “a lot of times I’d get home without any fish left for dinner.”

As Fred chuckles with a sparkle in his eye, I reflect that I am so fortunate to be gathering these stories and that his sense of humor is probably one of the keys to his longevity.

Fred recalled that ducks gave them the “sure sign” that the herring had arrived by the unusual call they made in the fall.

In the old days, herring were often caught with a herring rake. When the rake was swept through a herring ball, fish would get caught on the tines and could be shaken off into a boat. Fred remembered doing this with his dad in about 1932.

When Fred was young boy, he and his dad made a herring rake on the beach when he was about eight years old.  They split a 12-foot long plank of cedar from a log and then glued metal brads into one end with pine pitch. Fred’s dad did the wood shaping and Fred sharpened the tines.

When the herring were gone from the bays of Orcas Island, so were the salmon. I asked Fred what he and other fisherman from Orcas did when the salmon were gone.

“We just stopped fishing,” he said emphatically.  “I don’t think they ever came back,” he said sadly.

Fred didn’t just fish for sport he fished for subsistence. When the herring and salmon were gone, Fred’s daily living and a key part of his diet (and his neighbor’s diet) was gone.

Fred’s knowledge about the past ecology of herring is hugely important to scientists working to restore herring to Washington waters. His ability to contribute to the solution to bring herring back has also been an inspiration for him.

Fred’s observations of herring spawning times and places and the size (10-12 inches) of herring historically in Orcas’ waters highlight the need for more study in Puget Sound.  A small population of herring is beginning to come back in the Orcas Island area, but spawning times, fish size and quantities of fish have dramatically reduced from what they once were.

If you have a story to share about Pacific herring, please visit www.pacificherring.org and click on the quick link at the bottom left of the screen called, “Share Your Story.”

Andrea Weiser is an independent contractor and a member of the BC-based, “Herring School,” a collective of people from academic and First Nations community who are passionate about herring. She holds an MA in Archaeology from Simon Fraser University.


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