A post by Max Bakken
In late March and early April, millions of herring travel inshore from the Pacific to spawn. Herring roe is highly sought after by coastal First Nations. It is an important part of their cuisine and culture, and brings a frenzy of activity and food after the winter months. There are many ways to collect the roe – herring spawn on kelp, other seaweed, and hemlock trees that have been placed in the intertidal zone.
This season, I was lucky enough to get out on the water with some members of the Heiltsuk First Nation on a field trip to the herring grounds. Jordan, a hunter, fisherman, and food gatherer, came along to teach some grade 4 students about the herring spawn. Jordan is extremely knowledgeable about his territory and plays an essential role in the community providing food from the land and sea for his family and Elders. Our first stop was on a beach to have a look at some hemlock trees. Jordan darted into the forest and after some quick snaps came out with an armload of hemlock branches. The ones he had selected were flat in plane, not bushy. He explained that the herring like to spawn on a flat surface, which is why he had selected these branches, but also that it is easier to pick the roe off of the flatter branches. After you find the right branches, you have to strategically hang them in the water where the herring are likely to spawn. The students understood all of this and each took a sprig of hemlock.
We weren’t going to set any branches that day, so we moved on to a rocky area just offshore of another island. Just below the surface was a kelp forest, slowly waving in the current. You couldn’t see the kelp until you were right on top of it. Jordan winked, “secret spot”. He pulled a strand out of the water and showed us which pieces of kelp worked best to attract herring. The students all shrieked as it came out of the water as it looked like a long snake with long flat leathery wings. Jordan showed us that the medium length pieces, about a hand width wide, with no holes, and of course, nice and flat were best. Ideally, you hang this kelp from a rope with floats, and the herring come along and spawn on both sides. What you get almost looks like an inside out piece of sushi, about a half an inch of herring eggs on either side of a piece of seaweed. Chopped up into small squares it collects a high price in Japanese restaurants. Eating the kelp on its own is just fine too, and everyone tried a piece. It was salty, and tasted like seaweed! Yum.
Many Heiltsuk, I learned, prefer the taste of roe on hemlock. While you will find roe on kelp at some feasts, hemlock takes the cake. The roe takes on the flavour of whatever it is laid on. While you might not think of using hemlock needles in a soup or with a turkey, the flavour is a bit like rosemary and complements the roe nicely. Because of this, the commercial spawn fishery is exclusively spawn on kelp, and the Heiltsuk save the hemlock for themselves.
After a half an hour ride up another inlet, we found a fallen cedar whose branches were covered in spawn. Jordan said that the Heiltsuk may have used cedar in the past for roe harvesting, but that these days no one does it. Anthony, one of the grade 4′s, was looking at it like it was a new flavour of ice cream. Hands in the water he had a loaded branch in no time. Soon everyone on the boat was munching away, putting in their two cents about the cedar flavour. Almost everyone gave it a thumbs up, and Joe, the students’ teacher, had packed away what looked like a healthy month’s supply into his bag.
At the end of the day we had a bunch of happy kids who had more herring roe in their bellies and their minds than they did at the start. As they walked up the dock each with a sprig of cedar heavy with roe in their hands, I realized how important a food can be to a culture. The passing of traditional knowledge I had just taken part in has been happening for many millennia. The herring spawn is a huge event – it symbolizes the Heiltsuk new year. The enthusiasm of the students wasn’t just due to childish excitement, it was an enthusiasm shared with thousands of generations past about harvesting food, the coming of a new year, and the great bounty of the herring spawn.
A cedar bough laden with herring eggs. Photo by Max Bakken.