Knowledge Flows During Herring Season

[Editor’s Note: The following guest post is written by Senior Conservation Planner Phil Hoose. Phil has worked for The Nature Conservancy more than half his life. He has also written 10 books including The Race to Save Lord God Bird and Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, which won the 2009 National Book Award. You can follow Phil on Twitter @PhillipHoose]

Herring season

“It tastes like salt,” says nine-year-old Anthony Campbell, his mouth puckering as he withdraws his fingertip and munches on a herring egg. Other students lean over the boat and pull up streaming hemlock branches laden with pearl-sized white eggs. Some say the eggs taste like candy, others salt. Others just chew and pucker.

On a sun-drenched March afternoon, two speedboats are transporting a group of Heiltsuk First Nation fourth graders from the Bella Bella Community School, along with their adult advisors, to various sites around Troup Passage, in the Great Bear Rainforest of mid-coast British Columbia.

A few years ago The Nature Conservancy played a central role in historic efforts to preserve the world’s largest and most pristine coastal maritime forest, but our commitment was just beginning. We set out to meet, support and learn from the First Nations communities living on these lands and waters. Partnership with area schools and NGO’s has resulted in a community initiative known as SEAS — Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards. It’s a youth environmental education program designed to supplement regular school curricula with direct, firsthand experience.

March is herring month. Herring season — “When the Moon Tips Over” — marks the awakening of the earth and sea from winter’s grip. It’s a time of shrieking winds, roiled seas, and notoriously fickle weather. Male herring, responding to changes in water temperature and oxygen levels, rush to inlets and release sticky white clouds of sperm — or milt — onto kelp leaves and the flat needles of hemlock trees which have fallen into the water. Females then deposit eggs within the spawn. Milky clouds of spawn — some many miles wide — float on the water’s surface, attracting an explosion of seabirds, gulls and mammals.

For longer than anyone can remember, Heiltsuks have been cutting and sinking sections of hemlock trees into the water to attract spawn, anchoring them with rocks and then, later, peeling layers of nutritious roe off the needles.

The SEAS fourth-graders launched an intensive month-long herring unit early in March. They began with literature research, and then wrote stories and produced drawings depicting the herring life cycle and harvesting techniques. Next they developed lists of questions and interviewed elders in their families. They heard accounts of dangerous but satisfying work that has changed considerably.

“My dad told me he follows the birds to find the eggs, especially gulls,” said Trinity Hurt.

“My dad used to harvest mainly with his family when he was young,” reported Astrid Sandy. “Now it’s more just with friends. But dad said we never take more than we need.”

“My granny told me the way they store herring has changed,” said Allie Housty. “They used to keep it underground in a cellar. Now we use freezers.”

The elders were pleased to be interviewed. “My gran said it made her happy to answer my questions,” said Anthony Campbell, “even when I had to ask her to slow down.”


Today’s field trip is the unit’s big payoff. “They’ve been looking forward to this trip for a long time,” says Diana Chan, SEAS Summer Internship Coordinator. “They’ve grown up eating herring eggs but they have never harvested them. Here’s their chance to see in the wild what we’ve been studying about.” 

As the boats zip us from site to site, we compare the taste of herring roe on hemlock to roe on kelp (and we learn that herring prefer kelp no greater than a hand’s width, without holes and smooth on both sides).

Later in the afternoon, students get to operate sophisticated underwater cameras installed by our partners, Pacific Wild.  The cameras are powered by solar panels and fuel cells, and used to monitor marine wildlife. One by one the students lower the slim, black camera into the water and move it around while looking at a deckside monitor to see what images appear.

Trinity yells, “Look! A jellyfish!” Classmates surge around. It swims away.

Get it back! Get it back! “No…wait…there’s a fish!”

At a different site we learn about underwater sensors called hydrophones that record the sounds of the sea. It turns out that the dominant sound — a crackling, incessant white noise — comes from countless shrimp scuttling around undersea rocks.

The wind picks up, clouds increase, and the sea breaks into whitecaps. On the way back we run circles into the waves, bouncing the boats and sending kids into squeals of delight. It has been a fabulous trip!

For the fourth-graders, learning about their community’s connection to herring is about much more than history — it’s about the future of Great Bear. Ultimately, the fate of the rainforest will rest in the hands of these future scientists, natural resource managers and community leaders. For this reason, the Conservancy is investing in SEAS programs across Canada.

“I feel fortunate to work with SEAS in Bella Bella Community School,” says SEAS Coordinator Johanna Gordon-Walker, in her school office. “I was a fifth and sixth grade teacher here for several years, and I am a biologist. I created locally-relevant, science based-curriculum for my own class. But with this position I’m able to work with all age levels from primary to upper grade students to encourage stewardship. SEAS gives the students access to advanced technology, and it lets us get the students outdoors. Maintaining a connection between the student and the wider community — which includes the natural environment — makes their learning more relevant. It increases their enthusiasm for learning. That’s what SEAS is about.”

[Image: Herring. Source: atgrims/Flickr via a Creative Commons license]

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