No Herring for Dinner?

by Dana Lepofsky

Until recently, Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) was staple for many Northwest Coast Indigenous communities. People harvested herring year round and harvested both the herring and its eggs (roe) during the late winter and spring when the fish gathered in huge number near the shore to spawn. For many communities, the arrival of the herring during spawning season was an important social time when people visited, shared food, and dried and smoked herring eggs and fish for their winter food. The dramatic decline of herring populations in the last few decades, and continuing today, has made it difficult for people to eat herring and its eggs.  Many First Nations and Native American children have never even tried herring, even though it was, with salmon, the staple food for their people for 1,000’s of years. The loss of herring in the diet has had negative health and social implications for many coastal peoples.

Based on oral traditions, the archaeological record, Native languages, and memories, we know that during the spring people gathered in specific spots to harvest herring and its roe.  For instance, near near Scuttle Bay, BC in the traditional territory of the Tla’amin-Coast Salish people, up until the late 1980’s, drying racks were laden every spring with fish and herring roe attached to cedar boughs.

Scuttle Bay is next to another bay called, “Teeshoshum”, meaning milky waters with herring spawn – referring to the gorgeous aqua blue of the ocean when it is filled with herring spawn.  Archaeological excavations at Scuttle, an archaeological site dating from over 2,000 years ago until the mid 1900’s, yielded thousands of herring bones.  Tla’amin people up to about age 40, remember fondly gathering at Scuttle to harvest and dry herring. Today, herring are all but absent from Scuttle Bay and the neighboring coastline.

We don’t know the full extent of spawning areas in the past, prior to herring’s decline, but archaeological records of herring abundance, early fisheries records, traditional ecological knowledge, and modern observations give some idea of the extent and nature of herring spawning locations.  Herring spawning locations were especially plentiful in the Canadian Salish Sea, but they were other hotspots in every Nation’s territory.  It is said that herring will spawn on anything (e.g., dock pilings, burlap sacs), but we know that eelgrass and kelp beds were important spawning substrates.  In places where herring naturally spawned in abundance, coastal First Peoples would lay down cedar or hemlock boughs or kelp and then retrieve them when the boughs and kelp were so thick with eggs that you couldn’t see the bough or kelp.

When herring were abundant, they were easy to harvest when they schooled together (“massed”) during spawning or when they formed “herring balls” – roiling masses of 1,000’s of herring that would come together any time of year when the school was trying to avoid being eaten by predatory birds and fish.  At these times, the fish were harvested with scoop nets or herring rakes from canoes or the shore.  Herring rakes are long (sometimes 18 feet!) wooden poles with spikes at one end.  Historically, these spikes were nails, but in more ancient times they were bone points.  The rake was passed through the schooling fish and the herring were then caught in the rakes tines.

Once harvested, the boughs and kelp were hung to dry in the sunlight and wind or smoked. Traditionally, collecting the herring roe was a group effort –grandparents, children, and grandchildren all prepared boughs and collected roe. In ancient times, dried herring roe was stored in bentwood boxes or woven cedar hampers.  Today, when it is not dried, it is stored in the freezer.

While there is not agreement among First Nations and other local people of the Northwest Coast, western scientists, and fisheries managers about the causes of herring decline, most agree that industrial over-fishing played a major role in their demise.  That is, the archaeological record shows that herring were plentiful enough throughout the coast for the last few thousands of years that it could have been consistently harvested in abundance and as a result herring bones are the first or second most abundant fish bone recovered from coastal archaeological sites. The decline in herring numbers likely began with the first industrial fishing on the coast in the late 1800’s, when herring was harvested in mind-boggling amounts for its oil and then fish meal.  After a long history of a variety of herring fisheries on the coast, herring was hardest hit beginning in the 1970’s.  After the demise of herring in Japan through over-fishing, herring in our region began to be harvested for its roe – a delicacy in Japan.  In this “sac roe fishery”, adult females (the larger and thus older, the better) are targeted and the egg sac is shipped overseas.  Today, the taste for this traditional delicacy is declining in Japan.

To learn more about the history of Pacific herring harvest, the ways this food was traditionally used by Native American and First Nations of the west Coast, and modern traditional ecological management and use of herring, visit If you have a story to share about Pacific herring, click on the quick link at the bottom left of the screen called, “Share Your Story.”

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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