In late March in Sitka, you never know what the weather will be. It can squall one moment, hail the next, and then the sky starts to open up and the sun beams down through holes in the thick, grey clouds. Around town, people smile and say, “It’s herring weather.” Locals will tell you the unpredictable weather plays a role in how the herring know when it’s time to spawn.
But this was a beautiful, sunny Wednesday with a chill in the air. Students from Mount Edgecumbe High School’s Field Research and Marine Biology classes climbed aboard an Allen Marine boat, transforming it into a seafaring classroom with six stations, including plankton monitoring, oceanography, and exploring the cultural meaning of herring.
As students zipped up their jackets and dispersed to their first stations, one student asked her teacher, “Ms. Moll, can we do this every day?”
Every year, the herring spawn in Sitka Sound, and for the fifth year running, students in Sitka have gone out to meet them. Herring Camp is a week-long, hands-on study of the cultural and ecological importance of Pacific herring, and it comes at a perfect time.
Hungry predators congregate near the shores, eagerly awaiting the herring, the biggest sign of spring and the seasonal return of abundance. Because herring are a forage fish, they play a crucial role supporting a whole web of life, including coho and king salmon, halibut, eagles, sea lions, whales, and more.
In addition to their ecological importance, herring are essential to human ways of life, especially for Tlingit and Haida people who have relied on herring eggs as an important staple food for centuries. Sitka Sound is one of the last places in Alaska where you can still reliably harvest herring eggs for subsistence, and the eggs gathered here are shared throughout the state.
Cruising through Sitka Sound on the boat, the students emphasized that subsistence isn’t just about procuring food, though that is clearly an important part of it. Subsistence goes beyond the food itself, they said, and becomes a way of life that includes passing down knowledge and traditions and strengthening relationships by sharing precious resources.
“All my culture I learn from school,” said Norval Nelson, a student from Sitka. “I learned everything from the people I grew up with: the people I look up to that teach me, like Ms. Moll, all my teachers.”
As the boat navigated between islands, Chohla Moll, Mount Edgecumbe High School’s science teacher, integrated Tlingit into the journey, translating the names of the animals seen around the boat, like seals. “Tsaa,” she said, and the students repeated it back to her, practicing the pronunciation.
“Taan,” she said next, explaining that the word for ‘sea lion’ is also the Tlingit name for Middle Island, where the boat had just stopped. It’s a key spot for subsistence herring egg harvest and as a result, it’s off limits to commercial boats.
Both on board and back in their classroom, the students learned about the cultural and ecological aspects of herring all at once. The hands-on Herring Camp curriculum combines traditional ecological knowledge, scientific techniques, field research, and creative storytelling.
“I’ve actually never seen a herring fish before,” said Kaitlyn Painter, a senior from Nome. “So when we dissected one yesterday, it was really cool to see what they looked like.”
On the boat, the students moved seamlessly from sampling plankton to a station on the cultural importance of herring, where they drew as they listened to the Kiks.ádi story of a woman who let her hair down into the ocean for the herring to spawn on, and who was lost to the ocean as a result. To this day, Kiks.ádi women frequently refer to themselves as “Herring ladies,” an indication of just how crucial herring are to their cultural identity.
Chohla signaled that it was time to switch stations, and the students headed back out on deck to practice oceanographic data analysis. Norval explained that this kind of hands-on learning is his favorite way to learn.
“It helps me learn way better than if I were just looking up at a board, writing,” he said. “That’s how Tlingits do it — gaining experience from your elders, hands-on learning.”
Norval described his childhood running free around Sitka, going out on the water to fish and hunting through the Tongass National Forest. Listening to his stories, it’s clear that the Tongass is the perfect classroom.
In a place like this, experiential educational programs like Herring Camp are a natural fit, allowing students to explore the ocean, river, and forest habitats of the Tongass and the connections between the environment and the cultures rooted here. Students also gain crucial skills in the process, preparing them for and exposing them to different local career opportunities.
Throughout Herring Camp, students connected with the local resource managers who volunteered with Herring Camp, including professionals from Sitka Tribe of Alaska, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, University of Alaska Southeast, Sitka National Historical Park, U.S. Forest Service, and others.
“We hope students will be motivated to become the next generation of stewards for important cultural and ecological resources like herring,” said Kyle Rosendale, a fisheries biologist who works with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s Resource Protection Department.
The students completed their rotation through all the stations and enjoyed lunch as the boat turned back to the harbor. A few students were still working on their herring drawings; others pointed out the window at distant whale spouts. The boat trip was ending, but Herring Camp continued for a few more days back in the classroom, where students analyzed the data they collected on board.
For his part, Norval seemed captivated by the idea of working out on the water. “Going out on the boat, I love this. Learning out in the ocean, working out on the ocean…” he said, trailing off for a moment before concluding, “I don’t want to be far from the sea. It’s my favorite place.”
Norval wants to pursue a degree in engineering, and then return to Sitka to put his knowledge and skills to work. His plan is a great example of how this type of hands-on learning encourages students to apply what they learn to the places they live.
As for herring, there’s no better place than Sitka for young Alaskans to learn how to manage and conserve these important little fish, so that students like them can continue to learn about herring firsthand for generations to come.
• Maia Mares is a freelance writer currently living in Sitka. She also works for the Sitka Conservation Society, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Tongass National Forest and developing sustainable communities in Southeast Alaska.