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Traditional Foods: The Herring Harvest

As springtime approaches there is great anticipation of the annual herring run which occurs up and down the Coastal mainland as well as Vancouver Island. Pacific herring and its spawn have been harvested by Coastal First Nations, Native Americans, and Native Alaskans for thousands of years. Tens of thousands of tones of herring migrate from offshore to nearshore to spawn in masse in one of nature’s spectacular events. Nearshore waters flow chalky white with herring milt and eggs, drifting for kilometers along the coastline.

In the past during spawn season, herring were pulled from the water with baskets, dip nets, spears and long-handed rakes. Some people also used stone or wood fish traps on the intertidal areas of beaches to trap fish on the declining tide.

Today, whole herring are most commonly caught using nets (mostly seine and trawl nets) and they are either consumed fresh or preserved by smoking or air-drying for later consumption, and they are also used for bait as herring are the preferred bait for halibut fishing.

While the herring is enjoyed by many another delicacy it is also prized for ts’um’ush: the herring eggs. Rich in omega 3 oils and protein, herring eggs have been an important part of the Coast Salish diet for millennia. Coastal Indigenous peoples suspend hemlock of cedar branches or kelp blades underwater near the spawning grounds. Female herring deposit their eggs on these surfaces, usually in many layers.

The herring eggs can be peeled off the branches or kelp and eaten fresh, or, more commonly are preserved by freezing within a zip lock bag or air-dried. This prized food is often stored for later consumption at feasts, potlatches, traded and shared with family/friends.

Cooking Herring eggs

Cooking herring eggs to an internal temperature of 63 degrees for at least 15 seconds destroys any bacteria. Blanching the eggs in salted, boiling drinking-quality water will also reduce bacteria levels. To blanch, add the eggs to salted boiling water for one minute, remove and add to chilled water. (

Herring Eggs can be prepared as noted above, they can be rinsed and eaten raw, they can be cooked in a frying pan with melted butter, quickly fried and served with other food. For example, you can add oolichan grease/oil to provide more flavor or the eggs can be cooked within a broth and include diced potatoes, carrot, seaweed and topped off with your favorite soya sauce.

Click here to watch Natasha Bob prepare Herring Eggs during her Coast Salish 101: Traditional Teachings Workshop open to Caregivers from our 9 member Nations.

Read more stories from our Yukw'akw'usthut Newsletter here

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