Spring Herring Spawn & Wildlife Extravaganza
The widely distributed Pacific herring is an essential component of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem. As a “keystone species” in the food chain, the herring links nutrient-rich primary producers (zooplankton) to larger predators such as fish, birds, and marine mammals.
Pacific herring gather in the tens of millions along Southeast Alaska coastlines between March and June to spawn. It is a sight to behold: silver bodies churn against the shore, and their eggs and milt lend the water a milky green hue.
Because of its tremendous ecological significance, the annual herring spawn is an occasion for aggregations of hungry wildlife. Eagles gather by the thousands in trees along the shoreline, their urgent, piercing cries a constant refrain.
For photographers, there are few more thrilling subjects than a bald eagle emerging from a dive with talons full of herring! Seals and Steller sea lions can also be seen diving through the massive schools of herring that ribbon the shallow waters along the shoreline.
Humpback whales are drawn to the spawn and demonstrate various feeding methods to concentrate and capture the silvery herring. It is common to observe fascinating cooperative ‘bubble-net’ feeding behavior up close.
For the lucky, there is even an opportunity to see killer whales cooperating in their way to whip the herring schools into frenzied tight balls.
The annual herring spawn doesn’t just attract animals. People, too, eagerly await the spawn. Pacific herring is an important food staple for coastal communities in Southeast, and herring roe (eggs) have long been collected as a subsistence resource. Tlingit natives of Southeast Alaska harvest the roe by placing hemlock branches in the water; herring eggs are sticky, and a thick layer of eggs will collect on the submerged bows. Often dipped in seal oil, the roe is highly prized as a densely caloric and nutritious protein source.
Pacific Herring is also a commercially fished resource. Historically, the herring were caught and rendered for their rich oil or reduced to make fish meal. More recently, uses for commercially caught herring have included a limited food market, bait for other fisheries, and food for captive animals. The most significant current commercial herring fishery is for roe; the eggs are primarily exported to Japan, where they are an expensive and cherished delicacy (called kazunoko).
Herring will spawn in several locations through the Spring; the spawn that occurs in March along the shores of Sitka is one of the largest on the West coast of North America. Each year, Alaska Sea Adventures features a memorable Sitka Sound Herring trip to witness the area’s subsistence and commercial fishery efforts.
2024 Spring Photo Trips
“…being in a kayak with a 60 to humpback whale surfacing and blowing so close to me, was beyond words. These gentle giants blessed us with their presence. And when the junior whale of one pair began frolicking and breaching right in front of us, it made my millennium!!”
Susan & Dick R.
“Oh, my God! Trip # 9 with ASA and they just keep getting better and better. And the whales- I think that this week I saw more whales than I have in the past 14 years combined!”
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