By Dana Lepofsky

Herring are for coastal First Nations what anthropologists call a “cultural keystone species”. These are species that are so central to Indigenous culture that removing them from people’s lives fundamentally changes the way they see themselves and the world around them. Thus, like an architectural keystone, they are foundational to a group’s culture and are woven in to its cultural fabric. The species’ keystone role is evidenced by Indigenous place names, oral traditions, memories, and the archaeological record. In short, cultural keystone species have been central to people’s lives and livelihoods for generations.

In the case of herring specifically, there is lots of evidence of its status as a cultural keystone species for coastal First Nations and Native Americans from Alaska to Washington. This is especially evident in the Strait of Georgia where historical records, Indigenous place names, oral traditions, memories, and the archaeological record all speak to the deep time and consistent abundance and importance of herring. Remembering that Dept. of Fisheries records for herring only go back sporadically to the 1940’s, these other records provide a much more nuanced understanding of the cultural and ecological context of herring.

The archival records on the coast are replete with mention of herring abundance and its importance to coastal First Nations. Many of the earliest observations by the Spanish and British explorers talk about Indigenous Peoples harvesting and trading herring. For instance, this quote from the late 18 cen quote notes,

“This [herring rake] fishery is so easy that in an hour they load one of their canoes” (Spanish voyage, 1792).

The rake is a cleverly designed tool with tines at the end of a long pole. While standing in a canoe, the pole is used to sweep through a herring ball and the herring are then caught between the tines. In the past, the tines were made of wood and bone, but in the 20th century, metal nails were used.

The archival records indicate not only the abundance, but also the loss of herring early on – long before DFO started their records. For instance, this quote speaks of abundance beyond our current reckoning:

“In the Straits of Georgia, the schools in certain months of the year, usually the fall, may extend for many miles. Indeed in 1893 … a small tug passed for 3 hours through a continuous mass of migrating herring in the month of June, while I myself [in the 1930’s] have seen in February dead herring thickly covering the surface of the sea near Nanaimo for a distance of over two miles.” (Carothers 1941)

However, things started to shift soon after. In the 1880’s, there was a major fishery for herring oil and fertilizer and by 1900 fisheries biologists observed that herring were no longer in many larger bays. Indeed, by the mid-1930’s, there was concern in BC and Alaska that overfishing had led to the decline and/or movement of local herring populations.

The long-term abundance of herring is also reflected throughout the coast in Indigenous place names. For instance, in the Salish Sea, there is Teeshoshum (Waters white with herring spawn) north of Powell River, and Ch'axa'y (Water Sizzling [with herring]) for what is now the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal. Imagine that: waters sizzling with herring.

Of course, people have vivid memories of the importance and abundance of herring – both the fish itself and its roe. Herring were gathered with rakes and nets year round and at spawning season. Roe was gathered on hemlock or cedar bough that had been placed in the ocean during spawn times. Strict rules about how to behave at the spawning ground, how much to collect, and how to treat herring as another beings ensured that herring were there for generations to come.  

I have had the privilege of interviewing knowledge holders from several Coast Salish communities and all talk about the cultural importance of herring. In fact, I believe that the abundance that these people were experiencing was a fraction of the abundance of herring prior to their lifetimes. However, these conversations none-the-less indicate the importance of herring up until the more recent crash in the 1980’s from industrial overfishing. Here are some of the many quotes from people I have talked to:

“Herring were so abundant that they would constantly hit your fishing boots. (Jerry Galligos, 2009)”

“Yeah, the herrings …right now I think you get them 6 to 7 inches. And the herring we used to get back were probably…10 to 12 inches and a little bit bigger.” (Walter Paul, 2013)

"They dry the herring on a rack and then …you roast it on the fire. That's qʷəsʔəm they called it. And there was a lot of herring racks .... my grandfather had herring racks, my greatgrandfather had herring racks, my mom and dad, all the way down time you'd see in the back of the houses they have herring racks. But not anymore." (Phil George, 2013)

Of course, the archaeological record tells us lots about the past abundance and importance of herring. Fish traps abound in the Salish Sea, many in forms that were especially designed for herring. By capturing herring in traps, other important critters that rely on herring were also available to be hunted: seals, sea lions, salmon, and so on. So, traps created a kind of marine supermarket for the nearby residents. We have many such examples around Lasqueti.

Finally, the record of fish bones in archaeological sites tell us that herring were always around – and there were more of them then we can fathom. From 1000’s of years ago, the archaeological sites in the Salish Sea are dominated by herring bones. In most sites, herring bones make up 60 – 100% of all archaeological fish bones. And this is true through time. On Lasqueti, the Long Bay site, dating to a few thousand years ago, tells the same story: there were lots of herring through time and they were central to people’s lives.

I end with one final quote that is not from the Salish Sea but further north in Wuikinuxv territory on the central Coast. However, it well represents the long-standing cultural and ecological importance of herring..

“The Wikeno, and probably other tribes, have preserved an ancient custom in the practice observed by the person who in spring finds the first dead herring or oulachon on the beach. He holds it in his hand and addresses it, “Oh, grandchild, you have come!” Then he makes a smacking sound with his lips, and, still gazing at it, continues, ‘May you increase instead of decreasing, and so always!’” (Curtis 1915).