The history of herring in the southeast reaches back nearly 4000 years to the subsistence uses of the of the local Tinglit and Haida who harvested the herring roe on the branches of Hemlock trees. This tradition still exists as a huge part of the spring ritual in Sitka each year. The commercial fishing history and uses of herring date back to the late 1800s, when herring was typically reduced into oils to be used in soaps and fish meal for agricultural needs. Herring was also salt cured for the various food demands. By 1905, almost 50 different canneries were operating in Southeast Alaska and the advent of halibut fishing put even heavier demands on herring stocks for use as bait. With all of the numerous uses for herring, production peaked around the late 1930s. However, the intensive harvesting devastated the herring stocks and by 1942 all herring fishing had stopped in southeast to hope for rebuilding stocks. In 1966, the last oil reduction plant closed down in southeast alaska. Many of the largest herring biomasses have been devastated by poor practices in the past. However, the Sitka biomass is at its largest ever. The only way to ensure a better future is to understand the past. It’s no doubt that our fishery practices were flawed in the past. The only real question is. Will we repeat these mistakes in the future?
Herring have supported some of Alaska’s oldest commercial fisheries, and subsistence fisheries for herring in Alaska predate recorded history. The spring harvest of herring eggs on kelp or hemlock boughs has always been an important subsistence resource in coastal communities throughout Alaska. Traditional dried herring remains a major staple of the diet in Bering Sea villages near Nelson Island (Pete 1990) where salmon are not readily available.
Alaska’s commercial herring industry began in 1878 when 30,000 pounds were caught and prepared for human consumption. The early European settlers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska caught herring and preserved them with salt in wooden barrels, as they had done with herring from the North Sea. Salted and pickled herring production for food peaked after World War I, when about 28 million lb (12,700 mt) were harvested annually (figure of historical herring sac roe harvests).
Reduction fisheries which “reduce” herring to meal and oil began initially in Southeast Alaska, where a plant at Killisnoo in Chatham Strait was producing 30,000 gallons of herring oil annually by 1882. During the 1920s herring became increasingly valued for oil and meal. Herring reduction plants sprang up along the Gulf of Alaska from Craig to Kodiak near locations where concentrations of herring could be found. Harvests during the 1920s and 1930s, as high as 250 million lb (113,400 mt) per year, were probably too high and may have caused the stocks and fisheries to decline. During the 1950s, lower-cost Peruvian anchoveta reduction fisheries severely impacted the oil and meal markets. Alaskan herring reduction fisheries quickly declined, and the last Alaska herring reduction plant closed in 1966.