Bonaparte gulls and many other seabirds arrive at the spawning grounds north of Cherry Point to feast on herring and roe.

Image: Todd Sandell

“If there is no fish, even herring is a fish,” goes an old Yiddish saying. No matter how bad things got, herring was plentiful — a last resort, but one that made its way into the canon of Jewish cuisine (and to the butt of more than a few Jewish jokes).

Herring’s prominence in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine comes from its ability to flourish in the brackish waters of the Baltic Sea, explains Gil Marks in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. The Jews of Europe ate it with black bread and boiled potatoes and served it for Shabbat Kiddush and to break their fasts. When they immigrated to the United States, they brought the tradition with them, and herring — once a poor man’s food — shows up at lavish Shabbat spreads. However, Jews weren’t the only immigrants with attachments to the small, fatty fish. The large Scandinavian population that landed in Seattle also relied on them, as did tribal communities for thousands of years prior. And until about 40 years ago, Puget Sound teemed with herring.

 Today, the herring population of Puget Sound struggles to stay afloat. That’s a problem for the communities looking to enjoy the foods of their heritage, but it’s critical for the animals up the food chain, like salmon and orcas, that depend on herring and other “forage fish.” The result of this ecosystem breakdown is already on display with the recent loss of two young orcas. “Without forage fish,” tribal chairman of the Samish Indian Nation, Tom Wooten, wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed in September, “there is nothing for salmon to survive on. Without salmon, you will not have the southern resident killer whales. You also will not have Native peoples.”

For Lexi, a chef who grew up in a poor Skagit Valley family, herring were all but a free buffet. Now the owner of distillery-
turned-bar Old Ballard Liquor Company, Lexi (she goes by just the one name) is among the last generation to remember these plentiful schools. The once ubiquitous and immense schools of herring in Puget Sound are mysterious, and to learn why they disappeared — and how we can help save them, the salmon, and the orcas — attention and money needs to flow to the forage fish.

When looking for herring to supply her first pop-up dinner in 2015, Lexi realized something was wrong: She couldn’t get herring in Seattle. Each fish market sent her to another one, and on to another. Two weeks into her quest, she realized that when the Puget Sound herring stock collapsed in the 1980s (for reasons that nobody can really pinpoint), and the fishery closed, the gap was never filled — in part because nobody noticed. “Each fishmonger assumed it was still on the market,” she says, “but that they had just stopped carrying it.”   

Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest have been eating Pacific herring for some 11,000 years, according to archaeologists who have found bones in sediment core in British Columbia. The 1879 Directory of the City of Seattle discusses a herring company that produced 10,000 boxes of herring each year, “equal in flavor and as well cured as the best Eastern brands,” while the oil from the fish contributed $150,000 each year to the economy (more than $3 million in today’s dollars). The 1878 Pioneer Directory said the herring swam in such large schools that indigenous fishermen could catch them by driving a nail through a thin pole, then swiping it through the water, “impaling from one to ten at a single stroke.”

In 1926, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reported that 1,311 tons of herring landed that year. About five inches long, the slender fish are darker on top and silver below, colors that camouflage them in the water as they swim in huge schools. But the same report in 1942 lists just 36 tons. While part of the drop came from market changes, overfishing and habitat destruction began to take out herring fisheries around the world, with the Japanese one collapsing in 1958 and the British Columbia one in 1968. By the early ’80s, Washington had phased out reduction herring fishing (processing whole herring into oil and meal), leaving only a small bait fishery.

“There is a lot we don’t understand about herring,” says Margaret Siple, a post-doctoral research associate with the Ocean Modeling Forum at the University of Washington. Unlike salmon, which Siple explains need a specific size of gravel on which to spawn, herring might leave their eggs on kelp, branches, eelgrass, or whatever else is nearby. And while salmon use the earth’s magnetic field and their olfactory glands to find their way back to where they were born, theories differ among scientists about how herring find their spawning locations.

This is one of the barriers to figuring out how to help bring back the herring. Herring do not necessarily return to where they were born to spawn and may instead rely on other, older herring to show them where to go, possibly even communicating with each other through flatulence. (A Canadian study found that the noise the fish made by squeezing air out of their backsides served a distinct social function.) And even populations extremely close to each other may have slight genetic differences. This means when the fishery is managed at a broader scale — without distinctions between, say, South Puget Sound herring and San Juan Island fish — the cultural structure and genetic differences could be destroyed and wipe out an entire distinct subpopulation. No one knows what a healthy population of herring needs; diseases, predators, and food limitation likely contribute to their decline, as well.

In 2010, the Department of Natural Resources established the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve on the Strait of Georgia, 20 miles northwest of Bellingham, in part to protect the forage fish there. The herring stocks at Cherry Point have declined dramatically and are genetically different than other stocks in the area. The reserve focuses on research and habitat protection, in part because experts don’t yet know what caused the decline. “We’re looking at toxins, herring embryos, ages of fish coming back,” among other issues, says Birdie Davenport, Cherry Point’s program manager. “We know a lot more about salmon because it’s been studied so intensively.” But for herring, the research is playing catch-up.

While chefs like Renee Erickson have gone so far as to take Chinook salmon off the menu in the wake of orca deaths, when it comes to herring, “It’s not as simple as, ‘Buy something else at Whole Foods,’” Siple says. Instead, fishery managers aim to give herring the room and resources they need to rehabilitate themselves. The most tangible way Seattle consumers can help the local herring population is to support shoreline naturalization — moving away from armoring like seawalls and barriers — and to reduce stormwater runoff. As a bonus, these measures likely help juvenile salmon, too. Other than that, any kind of attention researchers can bring to the herring helps — such as through the Hakai Institute’s Herring School, an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural curriculum about Pacific herring — and getting people to eat more of them. Or, rather, their Alaskan brethren.

“We care about where our food grows,” Lexi explains. By raising the issue of herring to Seattleites, she intends to help the local population by ultimately directing money and efforts toward its restoration. Working with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Lexi started Alaska Herring Week in 2015, where top chefs in the region, including Erickson, featured the little fish on their menu for a week.

For certain communities in Seattle, herring is a long-standing tradition, and the only way to keep that fish around is to stop treating it like proverbial chopped liver. Maybe then, Siple says, “There might someday be enough in Puget Sound that we can eat them.”

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