22 March 2014

Herring Spawn

Really, there's nothing that can be shown or said to explain what the herring spawn means in town.

To the Tlingit, it represents the first opportunity of the year to harvest a traditional food from the sea. They cut hemlock swags and lay them in shallow water for the ever-so-particular herring to blast their sticky eggs all over. Later, the branches will be collected and steamed to loosen and partly cook the eggs, which are kept all year as a snack and an addition to a variety of dishes.

To the modern commercial fishermen, it represents a chance to get in on a very lucrative fishing season after a winter of indifferent fishing. The Sitka Sound Sac Roe fishery is one of the few derby-style fisheries still open in Alaska and brings a bunch of money, energy, and bustle to parts of town that have been laying dormant all winter. On the first day of the fishery this year, 5500 tons of herring were caught, enough to keep all of the local processors running 24 hours a day for two straight days.

Pair all of this with the fact that we're finally seeing sunlight for more than 50% of the day and the sun is out and the rain is less frequent and the temperatures are getting up to a balmy 45-50° and you have the start of an exciting time of year. When you further recall that herring are an important prey species to humpbacks and sea lions (and just about every waterfowl), someone with binoculars and a clear day and some caffeine can go all day without running out of things at which to gawk.


Earlier today, the kids and I went out to one of our local park/beaches. The tide was really low, so we had fun stomping on the pebbles and looking for clam holes. After that, we pulled off to the side of the road where a few other cars were stopped. I'd glimpsed something in the water on our way out, and I'm glad I followed my gut on this one. When we got out and settled by the side of the road, we could clearly see a herd of sea lions (probably 30-35 of them) feeding in a mass. They would all submerge, then blast out of the water. This was mostly a quiet affair, being more about eating than about personal space. Every now and again, though, barks and bellows could be heard. About fifteen minutes into watching this, a humpback decided to invade the sea lions' space, so we got to watch a blow about 100 feet off-shore. The whale swam out of sight behind some trees, but we continued to hear loud blows until we moved on. We stopped at two more spots on the way home, viewing different whales and sea lions at each spot. In all, we probably saw 15-20 whales (some feeding individually, others obviously bubble feeding but too far away for us to see well) and more than 50 sea lions.

After being home for a while, I looked out the window and realized that the activity had drifted close enough to town (the predation follows the food, after all) that we could now see it from our living room window. Here are a couple of crappy videos for your enjoyment. Try if you can to disregard the chatter of a pair of completely disinterested children.

1 comment:

  1. i love that the video that played with my email was a cordova boat and "shoot to kill" was playing...infinite grace looked like she lost a mast or something...or maybe overly greedy after a quiet winter. it's pretty balmy up here as well--we got up to 11 a couple of days ago and hovered around 0 today with very little wind. nothing to complain about at this end. good to hear life sounds more or less normal there. shutting up now...