January- Why Herring?

Welcome to the Native TEACH Blog!  This site carries testimonies from mostly Washington tribes focused on environmental health issues and research projects on our most coveted resources.  Subscribe to get a weekly story that carries you throughout 2015.  We meant for this to be a calendar that centers around four main themes: the issue, the message, an artistic representation and a call to action.  Each week we will highlight these themes.

In January we are featuring a story from THE HERRING SCHOOL.  Read more about them here: www.Pacificherring.org

Here is a beautifully written piece by Dana Lepofsky entitled “Why Herring”.  Subscribe to hear more about Pacific Herring, their significance, why we need to care and what we should do about it throughout the month of January.

Why Herring?

by Dana Lepofsky

It’s odd to think that at age 56 (!) I am old enough to have witnessed major changes in our environment.  But I have and what is most scary is that I didn’t even realize it was happening.

In the mid 1980’s, when I was just falling in love with my husband, he introduced me to the wonders of sea kayaking.  He took me on magical adventures in wild waters throughout British Columbia.  My head (and heart) is filled with moments of wonder and excitement.  Of all those memories, the one that comes back to me most vividly is when we were paddling in the middle of the ocean and we saw a swirl of life ahead of us — hundreds of gulls, sea birds, and eagles were diving in the ocean and coming up with fish in their mouths.  Ken knew that we were witnessing a “herring ball” – where thousands of herring were under the water in a roiling mass of fish trying to get to the center of the school where the birds from above and diving duck and sea mammals from below couldn’t eat them.  We paddled to the center of this dramatic show, and then Ken took out his fishing rod, put on a herring lure on it and dropped it in the water.  Within seconds, literally, he caught a huge coho salmon, which we then struggled to get on the deck of his tippy boat.  When we cut open its stomach, we found three whole herring.  It was the easiest fishing we have ever done.  It was a spectacular moment and I was in awe of the interconnectedness of all the creatures (including us) at that moment in time – all gathered together because of a small, but plentiful fish: herring.

Although I continued to paddle throughout our waters, I really didn’t think of herring again until 2006 when I was excavating an archaeological site in the northern Salish Sea, on the Tla’amin First Nation reserve.  On the first day of the excavation we found 1000’s of herring bones in the archaeological deposits – way more than we could count.  I was sharing this information with then Chief Walter Paul, and Walter said to me, “If you’re finding so many fish in this site, and our elders tell us that herring was always abundant in our territory, and we have place names that reflect this abundance, why don’t we have any herring today?  Why is it that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) says that herring weren’t always here and that they came at went?

At that moment, the herring balls of the 1980’s flashed through my head.  I stopped what I was doing and it was like I woke up from a long sleep.  I looked out at the water and said, “You’re right.  What happened to the herring?”

And, it was from that moment that I re-awakened my love for herring and with that a passion for understanding why it was disappearing from our coastal waters.  My many conversations with Tla’amin knowledge holders, and now repeated by my First Nations friends throughout the coast, revealed that herring declined dramatically since the 1980’s.  While fisheries managers do not agree with this perspective, First Nations in BC and Native Americans in Alaska largely attribute the decline and local extinctions of herring to over-fishing.  Herring roe, harvested in it’s egg sac from adult females, is sold to the Asian market as a delicacy.  In previous years, it got a very high price and herring fishing was very lucrative.

Today, herring are in severe decline, and many scientists argue that the decline in sea birds and other marine creatures is linked to this foundational food species.

To understand the natural and cultural importance of herring, I am currently working with western scientists and traditional knowledge holders throughout the coast and have formed the “Herring School” where we learn and educate about this foundational fish.  In the Herring School, we are working hard to figure out the effects of over-fishing and other stressors on herring and to use this knowledge to revitalize herring today.  As it turns out, there are many people on the coast who are as passionate about herring as I am.  Thank goodness.

Dana Lepofsky, is a Professor of Archaeology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. She is a member of the Hakai Network for Coastal People, Ecosystems and Management and Co-Editor of the Journal of Ethnobiology.


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