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Summit to save BC herring draws First Nations, other experts

Harvey Kitka regularly tows hemlock saplings, three metres long, behind his boat. Sometimes the trees are older and five times that size. A member of the Tlingit tribe in Sitka, Alaska -- the aboriginal people make up about half the town’s population of 8,500 -- Kitka is doing something the Tlingit have done for at least 300 years, transplanting herring roe.

Herring spawn cling to the trees Kitka tows to areas without herring. It's a traditional way to cultivate the roe, a food source so fatty a hungry black bear emerging from its winter den will seek it out. If the bear emerges too late for the roe, it will vacuum piles of sand fleas that have fed on the spawn. Herring were a respite from winter rations for coastal indigenous people for at least 8,200 years. Before potato chips, it was dried roe that provided people with a crunchy, salty snack.

Kitka, an electrician by trade, is one of the main subsistence fishers in Sitka. He spoke at the first Herring School Workshop held at Simon Fraser University on the same days that hundreds of students descended on campus to start new chapters in their life histories. The only students wearing bright blue "I (heart symbol) Herring" t-shirts were part of the Herring School. A youthful ideal of openness and honesty was the workshop's official mantra. The unofficial mantra was hope.

Coordinated by Dana Lepofsky, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University, the Herring School is an effort to raise herrings' profile and solve the problem of declining fish numbers through collaboration between First Nations, scientists, and fisheries managers.

Amidst the pie charts, tables, and the graphs with jagged lines that end in steep declines, it was First Nations' memories of the herring fishery that gave the workshop a foundation. From Alaska to southern British Columbia, the herring fishery was always a vital part of the ecosystem and culture of coastal people. Salmon might be king, but it's herring that forms the linchpin of the food web -- the underappreciated middle-child that has a relationship with all members of the family.

Today the fishery is like a tattered tablecloth full of holes. Where once kilometres of herring milt whitened shorelines from Alaska's Norton Bay to San Francisco Bay in northern California, the silvery wave of fish is now spotty. Sitka has a healthy herring fishery for example, while Tla'Amin has none.

Situated about 12 kilometres north of Powell River on the mainland, the Tla'Amin village of Teeshoshum -- meaning Waters White With Herring Spawn -- has had no herring fishery since 1984. The fish are gone. Describing what the community lost, Michelle Washington, a representative of the Sliammon Treaty Society, broke down in tears during her presentation. Washington is a woman who laughs easily and philosophically shrugged it off when her car was robbed prior to the conference. Her tears became a touchstone at the conference. At the age of 40, she is one of the last of the Tla'Amin to have experienced a traditional way of life as a child through her grandparents. Today, Washington works with SFU archaeologists to build a picture of the past fishery.

The juxtaposition is harsh, yet Washington remains hopeful that Tla'Amin herring are not relegated to the past forever. She believes blending Traditional Ecological Knowledge with science is key to saving the fish. After 10 years of fishing closures, the herring are still not back and at the workshop the one thing everyone agrees on is a need for knowledge from the original stewards of the resource.

Kitka's first herring fishing memory goes back 61 years, when he was a nine-year-old in a boat with his father during spawning season. Asked how he knows if a transplant has worked, Kitka smiled and replied, "The fish come back."

Jude Isabella writes about fish and other science issues for The Tyee and others and is an editor for YES Mag, a Canadian science magazine for kids. Find her previous Tyee stories here.

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